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Scientists Built the World’s Smallest House

Even a mite wouldn’t fit inside this itty-bitty structure

This house is just 20 micrometers long and features a tiled roof, seven windows, and a chimney. (FEMTO-ST Institute)
smithsonian.com

Tiny houses are all the rage these days, but scientists have shrunk the trend to proportions far too small for humans—or mites, for that matter.

As Becky Ferreira reports for Motherboard, nanorobotics researchers at the Femto-ST Institute in Besançon, France have built a house that measures just 20 micrometers long, making it the smallest house in the world. The itsy-bitsy dwelling would “not even able to accommodate a mite,” the team writes in a paper published in the Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology A.

The house was made from a layer of silica set on the tip of an optical fiber that measures less than the width of a human hair, according to Devin Coldewey of Tech Crunch. Researchers used a device called the μRobotex platform, which combines three existing technologies: a dual scanning electron microscope/focused ion beam, a gas injection system and a tiny maneuverable robot.

The little house was built inside of the scanning electron microscope’s vacuum chamber, and the assembly process was somewhat similar to the art of origami.

“The focused ion beam is used like scissors to cut or score the silica membrane ‘paper’ of the house,” the American Institute of Physics, which publishes the aforementioned journal, explains in a statement. “Once the walls fold into position, a lower power setting is selected on the ion gun, and the gas injection system sticks the edges of the structure into place. The low-power ion beam and gas injection then gently sputters a tiled pattern on the roof, a detail that emphasizes the accuracy and flexibility of the system.”

In addition to the tiled roof, the completed mini dwelling has four walls, seven windows and a teeny chimney, because “it snows in winter [in Besançon] and it is cold,” the researchers write in their report. But of course.

Why, exactly, did scientists undertake this feat of tiny construction? The project was a fun way to demonstrate that the μRobotex can operate with an accuracy of less than two nanometers. And that, study co-author Jean-Yves Rauch says in the statement, is “a very important result for the robotics and optical community.”

In the future, the team hopes to put its technology to more practical uses by affixing microstructures that can detect specific molecules onto optical fibers. The fibers would then be inserted into hard-to-access locations like blood vessels, where they would detect viral molecules. And scientists want to push their experiments even further by “constructing smaller structures and fixing these onto carbon nanotubes, only 20 nanometers to 100 nanometers in diameter,” according to the statement.

And while the μRobotex house might not do much for humans at this point, there are plenty of other options available. Tiny house in the Hamptons, anyone?

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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