Physicists from Leiden University have 3D-printed a miniature version of an Intrepid-class starship from Star Trek: Voyager. This is the smallest 3d printing operation we’ve ever heard of, and it uses individual photons to trigger the polymerization of the build material to create the objects in question. The microscopic model is actually part of a larger research experiment the physicists published in the scientific journal Soft Matter.

The ship — measuring just 15 micrometers in length — would probably hold the world’s record for the tiniest spacecraft model ever made, It is patterned after the USS Voyager and was microprinted by the physicists for their microswimmer research. It hasn’t got actual warp engines, though. Instead, this Voyager is propelled through liquid by chemical reactions between its platinum coating and the hydrogen peroxide solution the physicists placed it in — it basically fizzes along like a microscopic bath toy.

Their article states that these studies usually use spherical models for these sorts of tests, so these other shapes were created to test various morphologies to see how well each moved through a liquid medium, and to test the limits of their 3d printer in the process.

This is scientist speak for “Oh, wow, let’s see what we can make it do!” They’re often as geeky as the rest of us – sometimes more so.

Their article notes that these studies usually use sphere-shaped models for tests, so the more out-there shapes you see here were intended to produce different results and push the limits of the researchers’ 3D-printer in the process.

These are some of the shapes they tried. The one in the lower left is a “3dBenchy”, a little tugboat model used to test 3d printers of all sorts. At 10 nanometers, this is the smallest one we’ve ever seen.

Microswimmers are a broad scientific category used to describe organisms and objects that move through liquids. Bacteria or your white blood cells could be considered microswimmers, but it’s possible to make them instead of growing them, like the objects shown above.

Instead of searching for existing forms for microswimmers, the Leiden University physicists reasoned that it would be faster and more informative to make their own. Using designed ones might give us the ability to get specific types of movement out of them that can’t be found in nature. The applications aren’t endless, but they’re interesting – getting medicines where they need to go inside the body is one of the big ones.

It does tickle our imaginations to think of lives being saved by tiny Federation starships flying through our bloodstreams. But does the starship fly forward, or just sort of jiggle around in random directions? The answer comes from the paper itself. Unlike the little blobs of material used in other experiments, using a 3d printer lets the researchers put the little platinum patch anywhere on the object they want to. The Voyager model likely flies in one direction due to a small dab of platinum on its tail.


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