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This Microscopic ‘Gingerbread’ House Is Smaller Than a Human Hair

Although it doesn’t taste great, the silicon house highlights the capabilities of electron microscopy

The petite creation measures 10 micrometers long, or roughly a tenth of the diameter of the average human hair. (Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy/McMaster University)
smithsonianmag.com

Gingerbread houses are a staple of the holiday snack menu—and as Christmas approaches, these confectionary constructions tend to get big, bright and bold. But Travis Casagrande, a research associate at the Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy at Ontario’s McMaster University, opted for a different approach. With the help of some high-tech equipment, he has created what may be the world’s smallest gingerbread house.

The mini dwelling, according to Maan Alhmidi of the Globe and Mail, is just ten micrometers long—about a tenth of the diameter of the average human hair. It isn’t actually made from a spicy cookie base: Casagrande cut the house out of silicon with a focused ion beam microscope, which allows scientists to modify samples with nanometer precision. (The scientist compares the instrument to a sandblaster.) Then, he etched tiny details into the house, including a brick chimney, a wreath, doors and windows, and a Canadian flag welcome mat. While the itty-bitty creation doesn’t taste great, it remains a gingerbread house in spirit.

Casagrande’s house is around half the size of a teensy structure built in France last year and previously deemed the world’s smallest house. To highlight just how small his dwelling is, the researcher popped it on top of a grinning snowman made from materials used in lithium-ion battery research, like nickel, cobalt and aluminum.

The snowman looks huge beneath the house, but in a video published by the university, a zoomed-out vantage point reveals that the snowman and house are, together, barely taller than the diameter of a human hair.

“You realize wow, that house is tiny,” says Casagrande.

Speaking with Dan Taekema of CBC News, the researcher notes that “[c]ompared to the size of a typical gingerbread house that you might buy in a grocery store kit, mine is 20,000 times smaller.”

When Casagrande isn’t using the focused ion beam microscope for festive projects, he and his colleagues rely on the instrument to prepare miniscule samples for the Centre for Electron Microscopy’s transmission electron microscopes, “which are capable of capturing images down to the level of a single atom,” according to McMaster.

In contrast to traditional desk microscopes, which focus light through optical lenses, electron microscopes use electron beams and electromagnetic lenses.

“The wavelength of these electrons is roughly 100,000 times smaller than that of visible light, allowing far greater magnification,” the university explains.

Electron microscopes have a broad range of practical applications, from studying the structure of biological tissues or cells to developing industrial products and analyzing organic materials.

Casagrande created his tiny house in part to highlight the capabilities of the Centre for Electron Microscopy, which is home to ten electron microscopes and other equipment generally used for materials research in the industrial and academic fields. But Casagrande hopes the project will spark the interest of the general public, too.

“I think projects like this create science curiosity,” he says. “I think for both children and adults, it’s important to be curious about science. Looking into how this was made leads to more interest in science, and that builds more science literacy, which allows everyone to make better decisions.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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