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Cambridge, Mass. - May 16, 2013 - "Spring is like a perhaps hand," wrote the poet E. E. Cummings: "carefully / moving a perhaps / fraction of flower here placing / an inch of air there... / without breaking anything."
With the hand of nature trained on a beaker of chemical fluid, the most delicate flower structures have been formed in a Harvard laboratory—and not at the scale of inches, but microns.
These minuscule sculptures, curved and delicate, don't resemble the cubic or jagged forms normally associated with crystals, though that's what they are. Rather, fields of carnations and marigolds seem to bloom from the surface of a submerged glass slide, assembling themselves a molecule at a time.
By simply manipulating chemical gradients in a beaker of fluid, Wim L. Noorduin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and lead author of a paper appearing on the cover of the May 17 issue of Science, has found that he can control the growth behavior of these crystals to create precisely tailored structures.
You can really collaborate with the self-assembly process," says Noorduin. "The precipitation happens spontaneously, but if you want to change something then you can just manipulate the conditions of the reaction and sculpt the forms while they're growing."
Increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide, for instance, helps to create 'broad-leafed' structures. Reversing the pH gradient at the right moment can create curved, ruffled structures.
Noorduin and his colleagues have grown the crystals on glass slides and metal blades; they've even grown a field of flowers in front of President Lincoln's seat on a one-cent coin.
These false-color SEM images ...