6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair


It's practically dogma in today's technological age that everything has to be smaller. It wasn't too long ago that you needed a backpack to carry your cellphone, and now one can almost fit inside your ear. But the next frontier is all about making things "nano" size -- devices so tiny that they're invisible to the naked eye. And we're telling you, this stuff is going to make the future seriously weird. Already we've got ...

A Hard Drive Made from Only 12 Atoms

UU. L,

Conventionally, researchers make stuff smaller by taking the smallest thing we have already and seeing if they can shrink it a little bit. But IBM decided to just skip to the end and figure out what was the smallest possible thing that they could make work, starting with one goddamn atom. Eventually they wound up with a bit of computer memory storage constructed out of just 12 atoms:


That, or it's a picture of a black light sex toy. Our files aren't labelled especially well.

To put it in context, your iPod can hold around 10,000 songs, give or take. This thing is about a million times denser than an iPod hard drive. So if you equipped an iPod with a bunch of these, you could store around 10 billion songs, assuming that scaling it up to that size wouldn't, we don't know, create a supernova (the dangers of nanotechnology are poorly understood, at least by us). We can say that the researchers were able to stick eight of these together to create one byte of memory, so there's that.

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair

This can store roughly 1/3rd of a nipple.

Otherwise, the only problem (despite the fact that no Chinese sweatshop kids have hands small enough to assemble them) is that right now this thing requires something called a scanning tunneling microscope to operate, which is a device that most people don't have readily on hand. The atoms also have to be kept incredibly cold, or else it opens up a rift in the space-time continuum or something.

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair
Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images

Keeping things cold to avert disaster is a field we have some experience in.

Either way, the experiment shows that data can be stored at a size way, way smaller than science once thought possible, so maybe we're not far from a smartphone so tiny that you could lose it forever with a hard sneeze.


6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair

Don't be alarmed, but researchers at North Carolina State University have successfully created tiny volcanoes. And they want to put them inside your body.

UV Light 500 nm
Chih-Hao Chang/North Carolina State University

Was that a pickup line?

See the scale there that shows what 500 nanometers looks like compared to the volcano? Well, an average flea is about 2 million nanometers long. So what we're saying is that an average flea penis would crush that shit like Godzilla.

So what's the point of a tiny little nanovolcano? Fortunately, these aren't mad scientists, and they don't plan on holding the world to ransom with the threat of unleashing a natural disaster inside your intestines. Nanovolcanoes are here to help. Specifically, they're designed to release drugs into your system, instead of horrible, horrible magma. The insides can hold little particles of medicine:

3D nanovolcanoes Particle trapping trapped particles 500 nm
Chih-Hao Chang/North Carolina State University

Tiny amounts of vinegar and baking soda optional.

Nobody likes having to remember to take pills, so why not let a tiny volcanic eruption do all the work for you? By regulating the size of the cavity and the opening at the tip, scientists think they can custom make a volcano that will release a specific, regulated amount of a drug into your body, hopefully without the risk of it going all Mount Vesuvius on your insides.

According to science, the volcanoes are created by shining light through a crystal ball made of synthetic polymer onto nanoparticles that have been placed on a thin film. We're going to have to take their word for it. The only thing we're taking away from this is the image of tiny viruses running screaming as their virus-towns get leveled like a tiny Pompeii.

trapped particles
Chih-Hao Chang/North Carolina State University

If you look really closely, you can see a tiny virus Tommy Lee Jones collecting a paycheck.

LEGO Bricks Made of DNA

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair

As if scientists aren't accused of playing God often enough, the crazy guys at the Wyss Institute at Harvard have gone right ahead and created what might be the building blocks of life. And we do mean building blocks -- what they've basically done is make a LEGO set out of DNA.

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Yonggang Ke/Wyss Institute/Harvard University

Don't be fooled by the size: They're still insanely painful to step on.

Using a lot of science that we're hardly qualified to understand, the Wyss team engineered certain types of DNA in certain ways, and they have managed to create a bunch of 25-nanometer cubes that interlock to build bigger DNA structures. If you can't picture 25 nanometers, just pluck a hair from your head. That hair is 4,000 times thicker than one of these blocks.

As for what they could be used for, the scientists are notably vague on that point, and we can probably assume that they did it just to see if they could. But they speculate that the technology mostly has applications in medicine -- theoretically, it could lead to designer drugs that could be driven right to where the body needs them.

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Yonggang Ke/Wyss Institute/Harvard University

Nothing says "legitimate medical applications" like tiny LSD sheets.

Aside from this futuristic robo bacteria, there is more to the shape of genetic nanostructures than mere ease of transportation. Enzymes work by integrating and breaking down proteins of a certain shape, for example. These building blocks may allow scientists to restructure the shape of proteins to make them more easily digestible.

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair
Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images

"Half our grants came from the Arby's corporation."

Sure, it's not as much fun as building a 1:33 scale model of an X-Wing fighter, but Harvard nerds are much nerdier than the standard nerd.

A Fully Functional Radio One Molecule Thick

Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Getty Images

We joked about the concept of a nano-scale iPod earlier, but apparently the concept of a molecule-size music player isn't a joke to a team of researchers with the University of California, who created a fully functioning radio from a single nanotube.

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Come back when you have the mass of a radium atom, junior.

For the uninitiated, a nanotube is technically a single molecule of carbon organized into the shape of a tiny tube, smaller than you could conceivably imagine. It's like a single hair from an '80s bacterium's mullet. And far be it for such wizards to create a thing like this and just call it a day -- they've gone ahead and figured out how to convert them into consumer electronics that look something like this ...

a E sin(w.t) rad L A +++++ b 200 nm

Suck on it, Bose.

... and then physicist Alex Zettl proceeded to make that impossibly tiny radio pick up commercial radio stations.

While a radio small enough for viruses to rock out to seems pretty useless to us, scientists think they might find a practical use for their discovery in futuristic hearing aids, or at the very least Bluetooth devices that can be implanted directly into your ear. Because seeing people on the street talking into barely visible headpieces isn't confusing enough already.

Nano-Scale "Forests"

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair
Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images

If a nanotree falls in a nanoforest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a nanosound? Scientists from the University of California have finally figured out how to answer this timeless philosophical question by making a forest out of tiny little nanotrees.

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Wang Research Group/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

Let's just hope no microscopic lumberjacks show up and spoil the party.

Well, they're not trees in the literal sense, but tiny "nanowire" replicas made out of silicon and zinc oxide. Each one is about 1 micrometer wide (by comparison, a sheet of paper is about 90 micrometers thick). The tree design is deliberate, by the way -- they're trying to create better solar cells, and nature does that shit better than we do.

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Also: tiny pipe cleaners.

Researchers discovered that, despite common intuition, the tall, vertical structure of trees is better at gathering light than the wide, flat surface of a solar panel. That's because of all the leaves, which have a lot more combined surface area. But while nature provides the innovation, it lacks precision engineering, which is why scientists took the general concept that nature invented and shrank it down to more practical levels of portability. Now grow us a bunch of little pocket-size dinosaurs, goddamn it!

3D-Printed Nanobatteries

Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images

One of the biggest challenges to science's quest to create tiny swarms of potentially evil nanobots has traditionally been the problem of how to power them. After all, the ability to construct molecule-thick radios is pointless if we have to wire them up to bulky cellphone batteries that to them would be the size of skyscrapers. But they've cracked this puzzle, too, thanks to the ultimate buzz term of the 2010s, 3D printing.

MLLOLI 300 um
Ke Sun, Teng-Sing Wei, Jennifer A. Lewis, Shen J. Dillon

Too bad we don't have a microscopic Gameboy.

A team based at the Wyss Institute has successfully used a 3D printer to create the world's smallest lithium-ion battery. That's the same kind of battery that runs your cellphone and laptop, except this one is the size of a grain of sand. And that's not an exaggeration, it's literally the closest thing that compares:

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair
Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images

Try not to drop it.

The advent of nanobatteries -- which are printed by a nozzle more narrow than a human hair -- is what will make the invention of all other tiny things possible, presumably up to and including a Fantastic Voyage-style spaceship that flies around in your veins.

Scientists have already invented a very tiny shitload of microscopic devices in every field from medicine to communications that have until now languished dormant on lab benches for want of power, but now they may have found the final piece to complete the puzzle. We just hope that we get a few years of beneficial applications before the evil nanoswarm becomes self-aware.

Related Reading: Tiny things and technology don't always go together this well. Read about these very small computer glitches that had very big impacts. Like the time Google accidentally flagged the entire Internet as malicious. Or the time a .50 cent computer chip nearly lead us to nuclear war. Still hungry for more signs of man's hubris collapsing in the wake of his incompetence? Cracked has you covered.

These scientists couldn't hold a nano-candle to Nikola Tesla, mainly because his lightning cannons would incinerate them first. After honoring Tesla's legacy, honor your own by being as awesome as possible.

6 Things You Use Every Day Made Smaller Than a Human Hair

And if you're in a rush and just need a quick fix of Cracked, check out 5 Awful Ways Companies Commemorated 9/11 on Twitter.

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