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"LEGOs 'n Play-Doh" -- The Discovery Files

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Play-Doh and LEGOs are among the most popular childhood building blocks. But what could you use if you wanted to create something really small -- a structure less than the width of a human hair? It turns out, a team of New York University chemists has found, this can be achieved by creating particles that have traits like LEGOs and Play-Doh.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Tiny house revolution

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

A group of chemists wants to build a functional structure. One catch: they want it smaller than the width of a human hair. (Sound effect: cartoon hair pluck) The team from New York University tells us that even if we wanted to build an itty-bitty castle that small, it's within the realm of possibility. The building blocks created by the chemists are particles 200 times smaller than the width of the hair called, "patchy particles."

These mini-building blocks have an additional job -- to self-assemble. They're smart particles that build pre-determined structures through a process known as "colloidal fusion." Basically, shake 'em up, let 'em go and (Sound effect: renaissance fanfare) (Sound effect: bass note) whoomp! There it is: (Sound effect: mock English accent) a tiny castle, Guv'nor!

(Sound effect: kiddo music) Patchy particles work using principles most of us know from Legos and Play-Doh. Hmmm, never thought to combine those two. (Sound effect: Legos spill) Like Legos, there're endless possible structures (Sound effect: Lego click) from a handful of basic pieces. (Sound effect: squishy Play-Doh) And while Play-Doh involves squeezing together different colors of clay, colloidal fusion merges chemical functionalities to create multi-functional particles -- each with an onboard "instruction manual" to tell it what to do and where to connect.

The process could potentially revolutionize 3-D printing. Think printing self-assembling micro-machines -- say a model of a car a fraction of a millimeter long (Sound effect: tiny car zooms away) that really runs. Not much of a backseat in there.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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