When I first heard that a group of researchers created the world’s smallest fidget spinner, I had a few questions.

Simple ones like: “What is a fidget spinner?” and “Why?”

A typical fidget spinner, it turns out, is a small ball-bearing device that the user can rotate between his or her fingers. I believe that’s it.

This toy for the fidget-prone became surprisingly popular over the past year or so.

Although the novelty, as is, may provide a distraction for the bored, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences put a more exciting, ahem, spin on the gadget – mainly making one that measures only 100 micrometers from edge to edge. Just to see it, you’d need an electron microscope.

A microscope image of the ORNL fidget spinner (Image Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy)

The lab, located in Oak Ridge, TN and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, focuses on a variety of scientific areas beyond materials and manufacturing, including neutron science and high-performance computing.

According to ORNL staff scientist Adam Rondinone, the team was looking for an idea that could inspire young people interested in science, while also providing a means to reach the next generation – college and grad-school-aged students – perhaps interested in working with ORNL.

“Outreach and education are important parts of our mission. As a user facility, we offer services to the scientific community, which means that there’s also a recruitment component to what we do,” said Rondinone via email.

To create a fidget spinner the size of a human hair, the team required the use of the “Nanoscribe,” a 3D printer that employs light instead of traditional physical extrusion techniques familiar to additive manufacturing.

In this relatively new approach, technically known as two-photon lithography, a laser is focused to a point within a precursor liquid. At the focal point, photons interact constructively to increase their energy; the wavelength is halved, and that higher-energy photon is then strong enough to cause the precursor liquid to crosslink into a solid.

“This technique is limited only by the wavelength of the light we use, which allows us to make polymer-based structures far smaller than one can with physical extrusion,” said Rondinone.

The result: A fidget spinner that can be moved by air alone.

The product has received a surprising amount of attention, according to the Oak Ridge staff scientist.

“I’ve gotten feedback from science teachers all over the country that are using this demonstration in their classrooms, and we are even discussing how to place an exhibit in a science museum,” said Rondinone. “And yes, we’ve also been able to recruit some new professional scientists as users of our facility because they saw the story.”

The tools from ORNL’s Center for Nanophases Materials Sciences are available through the facility’s user program, which is open to users from academia, the private sector, and research institutes worldwide.

In addition to the tiny toys, ORNL researchers have also used the Nanoscribe machine to create microfluidic and micromechanical devices for scientific applications.

Watch the video here.

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