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Blog

Glass-blowing at the nanoscale

By James Dacey

Image og nano-capillary tubes

(Courtesy: Alain Herzog/EPFL)

From the Romans to the studio artists of today, glass blowing is as much an art form as it is a technical discipline. In the same spirit as this creative lineage, a group of researchers in Switzerland has invented a technique for creating nano-sized capillary tubes of bespoke sizes.

The scientists at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) realized that they could alter the ends of ultrathin quartz tubes by careful remoulding using a scanning electron microscope. The tubes soften because glass is a non-conductive material, so electrons from the microscope accumulate in the material. The person operating the microscope can then carefully shape the neck of individual capillaries by altering the voltage and electric field strength, creating very narrow tips.

In the image above you can see how the researchers used the technique to shape the necks of quartz tubes to a few nanometres from an original 200 nm, publishing their findings in Nano Letters.  The team has registered a patent for the technique and believes it could have applications beyond the laboratory. “We can imagine industrial applications in ultrahigh-precision printers, as well as opportunities in surgery, where micro-pipettes of this type could be used at a cell’s scale,” says Aleksandra Radenovic of the EPFL’s Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology.

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4 comments

  1. Jon Richfield

    I am, to coin a phrase, totally blown away by this extremely beautiful idea and achievement, but equally, I am nonplussed by questions concerning how such tubes might be applied and used. What is the capillary behaviour of bulk fluids in say 10-nm tubes? How thick are the walls? SiO2 is significantly soluble in water; how relevant is this to the durability and behaviour of tubes on such a scale? Will they be limited to non-polar fluids? Etc.
    I certainly will be fascinated to see how this develops!

    • M. Asghar

      Due to surfce tension of water, these nm capillary tubes create a negative pressure of up to 10 bars “watering” the trees going up 100 m.

  2. reader01

    cant be this pure Si nanotubes enriched with dopants and used as chips?

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