MOST FLOWERS START as seeds planted in soil, but Wim Noorduin, currently a post-doc researcher at Harvard, prefers to craft bouquets using Barium carbonate and sodium metasilicate. The two chemicals are disolved in a glass beaker filled with water and as carbon dioxide seeps into the vessel it kickstarts a chemical reaction that creates a wonderland of micro-sculptures that are about the diameter of the human hair.
After giving the chemical reaction a few hour to bloom, Noorduin slides the sample into an electron microscope where hundreds of thousands of flower-shaped sculptures have blossomed. “When zooming in using an electron microscope, you see that inside the beaker a vast landscape of complex sculpted microstructures has evolved in which you can get completely lost,” says Noordin. “It really feels like you are diving in a sort of alien coral reef.”
Sculpting might be too strong a word, but Noorduin has become increasingly adept at controlling the outcome of his experiments by carefully manipulating variables. Altering the temperature of the beaker by submerging it in an ice bath, adding drops of acid to control the pH, or even adding a pinch of table salt can lead to vastly different results. Increasing carbon dioxide levels leads to expansive, leafy crystals while changing the pH level results in rosette structures.
Beyond being the kind of gift that would set Amy Farrah Fowler’s heart afire, Noorduin’s nano-sized nosegays have serious applications in materials science research. Microfabrication techniques that build objects at impossible small scale have seen tremendous gains over the last decade, but researchers are bumping up against limits at molecular and nanoscales. Noorduin believes this low-tech, biology-based growth approach could ultimately lead to breakthroughs in optical materials and other applications.
For those interested in the science behind Noordin’s Boutonnières, his research has been published in prestigious journals, though his most important peer-review comes from his lady friend. “Over the years my girlfriend has indeed received many pictures of the flowers,” he says. “I took thousands of pictures and would send the best ones to her.”