Make it so tiny

By Phil Plait | March 15, 2010 5:00 pm





That is a model of the USS Enterprise-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation, created using an ion beam that guides vaporized chemicals and deposits them into a given shape. The amazing thing is that this model of the Big Little-E is only 8.8 microns (millionths of a meter) long! For comparison, a human hair is about 50-100 microns across. This image is magnified 5000 times.

I wonder if it comes with a tiny Wil Wheaton, too?

Tip o’ the VISOR to Digg.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Geekery, SciFi, TV/Movies

Comments (58)

  1. Rift

    And people said I needed to get a life when I made a render image of a Dalek reading “Bad Astronomy”.

    No, seriously, this is uber cool.

  2. Jason A.

    I wonder why there’s a 2D projection of it on the flat surface below?

  3. Very cool, but doesn’t the saucer section look a little… I dunno… warped to you?

  4. Scottynuke

    They left the ion beam on the saucer a little too long, obviously…

    Uber-cool! :-)

  5. Mike from Tribeca

    Teensiest office swivel chair ever? Groovy. First thing in the morning, I’m heading over to Staples to pick up a box of 60 million of these.

  6. Nadia
  7. Supernova

    This is the story of a little ship… that took a little trip.

  8. HP

    Jason @ 2: I assume that the model Enterprise is made up of molecules lifted from the substrate below, thus leaving a shallow, Enterprise-shaped depression. That would mean that the deposition is a lot less dense than the substrate it was formed from, hence the droopy saucer.

  9. Catspaw?

    And I don’t even like Star Trek.

  10. How long did it take to do this and were they on a payroll? And what is this technique usually used for?

  11. Anonymous Romulan

    …magnified 5000 times? On whose monitor?
    It’s bigger on my monitor than on my wife’s.

  12. Dwatney

    OMFSM! If you click to go to the site and look at the image above this one, you will see the image of the Virgin Mary!! Starting from the left-most visible “soldier” on the front row, go right 2 and back one.

  13. Kevin

    I saw this last night when Emily Lakdawalla tweeted about it. I immediately had to forward it to all my science/sci-fi/space geek friends.

    It rocks!!

  14. It was made with an ion beam? I hope they inverted the tachyon emitters and recalibrated the phase array.

  15. Mike

    Like a balloon, and… something bad happens!

  16. Mike from Tribeca

    Sorry, but I’m not buying it. No “Empire Strikes Back” space slug? What do you take me for, some guy who bought a pork chop that resembles Darth Vader?

  17. tm

    How big would the mugs of Earl Grey tea be?

  18. Dan

    @Molly: Not that long. Probably less time than it took you to make your asinine comment. Why don’t you go back to making crafts? It is used to make small devices called MEMS and for subject matter like ‘Lab on a chip’.

    @HP. No substrate is lifted. Probably because the beam is fired so long at the parts of the ship, some stray ions get down to the surface and cut away small pieces of the substrate — causing a 2-d silhouette of the ship to be formed on it.

  19. Huron

    It looks more like an Ambassador class, rather than a Galaxy class.

  20. Thameron

    If all they can do with the ability to create things atom by atom is spell out IBM and make tiny replicas of the Enterprise then I must say I am not impressed. We are still burning coal here people. Where are the Whizbang(tm) Energy converters?

  21. barcsb

    This post was good, until I realised Will Wheaton was in it…

  22. quasidog


    Will Wheaton love is disturbing

  23. jcm

    Cool. Über-geeky.

  24. MadScientist

    Obviously a case of Intelligent Design; there *must* be a Q!

    Oh – and see that seemingly insignificant speck? I’m sure if you magnify it another 9,000 times you’ll see it’s Wil …

  25. tensai

    Eh, Would’ve been cooler if it was the Falcon.

  26. Did they reverse the polarity of the neutron flow?

  27. Erwin

    barscb – quasidog

    I bow before the awesomeness of Wil Wheaton and likewise before his alter ego Wesley Crusher.

  28. andyo
  29. 11.   Anonymous Romulan Says:

    March 15th, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    …magnified 5000 times? On whose monitor?
    It’s bigger on my monitor than on my wife’s.

  30. Thank you. Sorry Phil, but I can’t stand it when people just go with the “X” number without specifying. And don’t get me started on “x zoom” on camera lenses. The “10.7X” 28-300mm Canon lens doesn’t magnify a distant object more than the “4X” 100-400mm!

    The specifics are in the linked page though:

    Magnification (3″x4″ image): 5,000X

  31. Murff

    @Dan: why did you have to disrespect Molly like that? She asked a valid question and you answered most of it, and then chose to be rude for no apparent reason.

  32. Grand Lunar

    “Don’t call me tiny!”

    Can this method be used to also make really small computer circuits?
    Or is that already being done?

  33. DennyMo

    Interesting that this image was from the 2003 contest. Here’s the index to other years’ winners:

  34. Jason

    @Murff: Not to speak for Dan, but if I’d had the knowledge to answer I’d have snarked as well. Molly’s initial “question” was nothing more than a thinly veiled sneer at the people who did this, presumably for wasting time or money.

    While I’m certainly no fan of waste, especially if my tax money is being used to fund it, small things like this are good to make occasionally just so people can see that this super-expensive technology can do stuff. A fancy new computer chip that only 5 people on Earth can explain the significance of does more but gets less recognition. Show somebody that you can build a model of a well-known sci-fi ship a few microns across and that can help them grok just how small machines can become in the next few years/decades.

    So even if Dan is wrong and it takes more than just the time “it took [her] to make [her] asinine comment” the fact that something is out there that the average Joe can see and maybe relate a little to makes it a worthwhile once-off endeavor and not the waste Molly seems to assume it was.

    Now get back to me when they make one that can fly :)

  35. Reynold

    ……….??………Ok, some people really, desperately need a life! At least it wasn’t some sort of “Doctor Who” nonsense!

    I know Phil doesn’t read these comments once they get beyond a certain number, so I know I’m safe I dissing his show.

    Seriously, it’s probably good practice for when they have to use that technology to make something actually useful.

  36. Ian

    I cannae take anymore

  37. Gamercow

    They’ve already made useful stuff, but you don’t see reports about lab on a chip, or microinterferase transitioning, or anything else that they do. They wanted to do something fun, and did it. And actually, they won a PRIZE for it, which got them recognition and probably money. The net ROI for this little “stunt” was most likely positive.

  38. Tim C

    This is what Douglas Adams had in mind in HHGTTU –
    “For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across – which happened to be the Earth – where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”

  39. I think Jason and Gamercow make good points. The very real advances being made in this field are too technically complicated for the average layperson (including scientists in other fields like myself) to understand, and not all significant breakthroughs are going to have some kind of big practical application (OMG CURES CANCER!!!1!) immediately either, so it doesn’t hurt to do some kind of demo with public appeal once in a while.

    That said, my husband is a biomedical engineer who’s done a bit of work trying to manufacture micro-scale three-dimensional objects, and this reduced him to speaking gibberish. =D

  40. alfaniner

    I guess this means that, on the Holodeck, you can actually walk the Planck.

  41. Peter F

    An amazing accomplishment, utterly ruined by the use of an inferior Trek spinoff as reference… ;^)

  42. Reynold

    Xenobiologista and Gamecrow are of course, right.

    I’m just taking shots at the “nerdiness” of it.

    Then of course, there’s alfaniner who must be made to pay somehow for that horrible, horrible, yet extremely small pun.


  43. Scottynuke

    I’d say alfaniner might actually win a micron-scale model of the Internet for that pun… :-)

  44. Avocet

    I did not perceive Molly’s questions as asinine or sneering. In fact, as soon as I read them, I wanted to know the answers!

    How long did it take? It seems like very delicate work to guide so small a beam. I imagine it would take a great deal longer than posting a comment or sending a tweet.

    Were the guys on a payroll? If so, the company they work for must be exceedingly cool to let them do something like this. Kudos to them if that is the case.

    And what is this process normally used for? I certainly had no idea, and appreciated the answer to that one, although I wish it had been more detailed.

    Insightful questions or underhanded bashing? Only Molly can know for sure.

  45. Strahlungsamt

    Very important info. :)

  46. Brian Too

    Reminds me of that STNG story where the Q’s were battling each other and one of them hid in a… what was it? Atomic nucleus or something?

    Of course this doesn’t quite achieve that level of shrinkage, but it’s headed in that direction. I wonder if it’s half-way there? Disregarding of course that the above isn’t a real ship shrunk through Q physics.

  47. TheInquisitor

    Tough little ship.

  48. I used to work in this industry for about 10 years (and still do the occasional job).

    Although I mostly worked in etch (the take-away process), the principles are the same for deposition (the building-up process). The website says this was made by ion beam CVD. That stands for “Chemical Vapor Deposition.” The process takes a feed gas containing the material that you want to deposit and activates it by turning it into a plasma (OK, all you Trekkies can stand down, yes we’re really talking about plasma here as in an ionized gas) by hitting it with high power radio waves (usually around 14 MHz).

    Once ionized as a plasma, the gas molecules can be moved around with magnetic and electric fields. Generally, they just put a single large static field on the substrate (the thing that you want to deposit the material on) which attracts the ionized material. It’s a remarkably precise process. Deposition process engineers talk in terms of “monolayers” which are single atomic thicknesses of a material. You control the thickness by how long you leave the plasma and accelerating fields turned on.

    I’ve never worked with ion-beam CVD directly, but I have done ion-beam PVD (also called “sputtering”). The beams are generated in a small accelerator and since they are also (by definition) ionized you can steer them with magnetic fields. This isn’t quite as exotic as it sounds, TV’s have done this with electrons for almost a century now. This just uses heavier ions. The part that I’m not familiar with is how, exactly, they cause the material to build up in one point in space.

    For those asking about the “projection” of the model on the substrate itself, this could be a shadow from the model blocking the illuminating electrons taking the picture. It could also be some sputtering (physical etching) of the substrate from the ion beam that made the model. That seems more likely because you can see bright and dark edges indicating depth, much like the bright and dark features on a crater rim illuminated by sunlight.

    Finally, for those agape at the scale of this model, remember that at 8.8 micrometers, it is still about 1,000 times larger than the traces on a modern circuit. Those are currently in the neighborhood of 10 nanometers (1 billionth of a meter). It also shows some of the limitations of the technique. Where the “stand” attaches to the substrate, the material is fairly precisely laid down. The main body of the ship is still pretty good, but the saucer looks like a souffle that fell! This sort of thing happens in circuits as well when you pile them higher and they have to be ground down flat again.

    – Jack

  49. MadScientist

    @Grand Lunar: electronic microcircuits and made using a variety of techniques – you etc, sometimes add on a bit, introduce impurities, etch, deposit some metal, etch … I don’t believe this particular deposition technique is used for mass-produced circuitry, but to give you some idea of where circuitry is these days, entire functional units within the circuitry take up an area of about 30 microns in some commercial fabrication plants and there are ongoing efforts to make 20 micron circuits commercially viable. Circuits operating at 1.8V are now fairly common, there are a few circuits that run to about 1.2V and a few esoteric ones (or highly specialized ones) which can run off as little as 0.8V – although the unit size is not necessarily smaller in the lower voltage circuits. You’re probably already using a lot of 1.8V stuff and a few 1.2V items without knowing it.

  50. Grand Lunar

    Many thanks for the info!

    @Brian Too,

    You’re thinking of an episode of ST:Voyager.

  51. Toothygrin

    Honey, I shrunk the Star Trek

  52. Pi-needles

    @^ Toothygrin: Great reference. 😉

    @45. Strahlungsamt Says:

    How to make an Enterprise out of an old floppydisk -neat.Thanks. :-)

    I’m going to have to try that – & forward it on too.

    @ The BA’s opening item & the people who did that – Wow. Just “wow”. 😀

  53. Keiko

    “I guess this means that, on the Holodeck, you can actually walk the Planck.”

    You just activated my prefrontal cortex, sir. ^_^

  54. 49. MadScientist Says: “…there are a few circuits that run to about 1.2V and a few esoteric ones (or highly specialized ones) which can run off as little as 0.8V – although the unit size is not necessarily smaller in the lower voltage circuits.”

    They might not be smaller, but the power consumption (hence the amount of heat to get rid of) goes down with lower voltage (presuming the current stays the same). Heat dissipation is a major problem for dense circuits.

    – Jack

  55. Wonder how maybe billions of dollars went into making a Starship half the width of a human hair. At least if they were making Sponge Bob’s you wouldn’t sound like a freak talking about it at the dinner table in front of your kids.


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