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Physicists Have 3D Printed a Cell-Sized Tugboat

“Honey, I shrunk the boat!”

Credit: Leiden University

Physicists from Leiden University have 3D printed the world’s tiniest boat: a 30-micrometer tugboat called Benchy. 

The tugboat’s size is a third smaller than the thickness of a human hair and six times larger than a bacteria cell. In other words, a boat this size can easily sail down the inside of a human hair!

According to Leiden, the boat’s purpose will serve to research natural “microswimmers,” microscopic objects that can move through liquids. Common examples include organisms like sperm and bacteria. 

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat!”

To build the boat, the team used a Nanoscribe 3D macro printer and a process called two-photon polymerization (2PP). 

In brief, 2PP consists of having a laser build the boat from the inside of a water droplet. Each time the laser made contact inside the droplet, a section would then harden. 

Benchy, however, is not your typical 30-micrometer tugboat, it also includes a cockpit! Humor aside, the tugboat does showcase several complex shapes and designs.

Traditional human-sized printers often struggle in 3D printing the boat’s cockpit, as it is an open space that requires an immense amount of geometric trickery. Leiden’s cell-sized copy is a great accomplishment as it was able to master the challenge.

This 3D printing technique has opened the doors to new possibilities. According to researcher Daniela Kraft, such a project can provide a better insight into the behavior of synthetic microswimmers, which can “be useful for applications in therapeutic diagnostics and drug delivery.” 

An accomplishment like this will definitely help shape the future of medicine.

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