A microscopic alphabet soup

UCLA researchers have produced microscale particles shaped like each letter of the alphabet. They've used 'lithoparticles' -- microscale and nanoscale particles that can have a wide range of material compositions -- to create this microscopic alphabet. They even can choose a specific font to create these colloidal letters, made of solid polymeric materials dispersed in a liquid solution. These letters could be used to 'mark' individual cells or for new medical applications. With the right microscope at home, you could even play Scrabble with these letters...

UCLA researchers have produced microscale particles shaped like each letter of the alphabet. They've used 'lithoparticles' -- microscale and nanoscale particles that can have a wide range of material compositions -- to create this microscopic alphabet. They even can choose a specific font to create these colloidal letters, made of solid polymeric materials dispersed in a liquid solution. These letters could be used to 'mark' individual cells or for new medical applications. With the right microscope at home, you could even play Scrabble with these letters...

Let's start by looking at this microscopic alphabet soup. (Credit: Credit: Carlos J. Hernandez/Thomas G. Mason, UCLA Chemistry). Here is a link to related images.

A colloidal alphabet soup

This research project has been led by UCLA professor Thomas G. Mason and chemistry graduate student Carlos J. Hernandez who is a member of his research group. "We can even choose the font style; if we wanted Times New Roman, we could produce that," said Mason. [And] Hernandez designed a customized font for the letters and produced them.

"We have demonstrated the power of a new method, at the microscale, to create objects of precisely designed shapes that are highly uniform in size," said Mason, a member of UCLA's California NanoSystems Institute. "They are too small to see with the unaided eye, but with an optical microscope, you can see them clearly; the letters stand out in high fidelity. Our approach also works into the nanoscale."

Of course, if you can build microscopic objects shaped like letters, you also can design other kinds of structures such as triangles, crosses and doughnuts. But what can be they used for? Here is the answer of the UCLA scientists.

Because each letter is smaller than many kinds of cells, possible applications include marking individual cells with particular letters. It may be possible, Mason said, to use a molecule to attach a letter to a cell's surface or perhaps even insert a letter inside a cell and use the letter-marker to identify the cell. The research also could lead to the creation of tiny pumps, motors or containers that could have medical applications, as well as security applications.

This research work has been published by The Journal of Physical Chemistry C under the title "Colloidal Alphabet Soup: Monodisperse Dispersions of Shape-Designed LithoParticles" (Volume 111, Issue 12, Pages 4477-4480, published online on February 13, 2007). Here is a link to the abstract.

Even if the research work is very interesting, I'm not really sure it will have practical applications anytime soon, even if UCLA has applied for patent protection.

Sources: University of California Los Angeles, via EurekAlert!, March 20, 2007; and various websites

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