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BYU researchers create microscopic cupid

By Kayla Franson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14 2013 6:05 a.m. MST

This cupid's arm is the width of a human hair. It's made from nanotubes that are 10,000 times smaller.

Lawrence Barrett/BYU

Enlarge photo»

PROVO — The world’s smallest cupid didn't improve anyone's Valentine's Day, but BYU students and professors believe he's a breakthrough in shaping microbes that will improve life in other ways.

BYU researchers have recently found new ways of creating micro-machines and filters smaller than the width of a single strand of hair. Their creations have included a BYU logo and the mini cupid.

“We’ve made it possible to make some shapes that were not achievable otherwise, taller, thinner shapes, but we’ve also made it so that they can be done cheaply and out of a wider variety of materials,” said Robert Davis, a BYU physics professor. “The other work in this space or domain … is out of silicon, which is a really interesting material, but it’s a very brittle material.”

Instead, these scholars have developed ways to make the shapes out of nanotubes of carbon, metals and ceramics. With these new processes, Davis said he hopes it will give some technologies, like cellphones and vehicles with better navigation and stability, the chance to be more widespread at reasonable prices.

Richard Vanfleet, a BYU physics professor, said another goal is to make the structures more durable and able to withstand harsh environments, like high temperatures and high acidity.

Microscopic filters, another major focus for the researchers, are often used in manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and detecting impurities from foods and in the beverage industry. Lawrence Barrett, a junior majoring in physics, has spent time studying and refining these filters.

“When (beverages) are made, they have all these particulates that need to be filtered out before they can be sold,” Barrett said. “So the filters they use now are pretty inefficient and bulky, and they require a lot of power and pressure to be able to … filter out the gunk. These filters that we’re making are just better at it. … It doesn’t take as much energy or time to filter these products, which in turn makes them cheaper.”

He said previous versions of filters would pop when the contents were pressurized because they weren’t thick or stable enough. While in the past it was difficult to build structures five microbes tall, now they can create them 100 microbes tall.

“One of the things that’s really hard about micro-machines is to make devices that are tall and … thin, on a microscale,” he said. “That’s something that we’ve found a new way of doing very successful(ly) here at BYU.”

Barrett recently presented the filtration project at a business plan competition where the audience voted him the “Innovation Idol,” which is given to the person they think is most likely to be successful at creating a business from their idea.

“You can make a business when you produce filters and sell them to … companies to put inside their gear or companies that make masks for miners, put it inside the masks and filter the mining dust out of the air they breathe in,” Barrett said. “Or you could sell them to beverage companies to install … for making different beverages.”

The research has been printed in the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, Journal of Chromatography A and the Journal of Microelecromechanical Systems.

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