The microscopic world is full of fascinating creatures, some of which serve as inspiration for cutting edge “synthetic microswimmers.” These particles could revolutionize medicine with their ability to move through a liquid medium via chemical interactions. Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands have been hard at work testing new microswimmer designs, which could help us understand how shape affects the capabilities of these nanoscale devices. One of the shapes they chose is none other than the USS Voyager. It doesn’t have warp engines, but it can get along fine with the help of hydrogen peroxide and platinum.
In the Star Trek universe, Voyager was an Intrepid-class starship measuring 343 meters (1,125 feet) long with 15 decks and one of the most sophisticated sensor arrays in Starfleet. While Voyager was about half the size of the more famous Galaxy-class Enterprise-D, it still had room for 160 crew. The tiny 3D printed microswimmer version of Voyager doesn’t have any of that. It’s shaped like Voyager, but it’s only 15 micrometers (0.015 millimeters) long. That said, shrinking starships are a common tope in Star Trek. So, this is pretty on-point.
Until now, almost all synthetic microswimmers have been spherical, but we know it should be possible for other microscopic shapes to move efficiently through a liquid environment — after all, biological microswimmers come in many different shapes. These creatures have cilia or flagella that allow them to move in any direction, but science is still learning how to do that with synthetic objects. The Federation starship was one of several designs created with a technique called two-photon polymerization, allowing the team to work at the nanometer scale to build new microswimmer shapes. The propulsion comes from a platinum coating that reacts with hydrogen peroxide in solution, nudging the swimmer along.
The goal of the Leiden University study was to explore the properties of microswimmers in different shapes. By varying the shape and location of catalyzing surfaces, the team has started to get a handle on how to build useful synthetic microswimmers. For example, the research shows that clockwise and counterclockwise helices move along their long axis with very little variation. This is an important step toward building microswimmers that could, for example, move through the body to deliver drugs to a specific location.
But why Voyager? For one, it’s a complex shape that shows off the 3D printing techniques used for this study. Lead author Samia Ouhajji also promised one of his co-authors he’d print any shape he wanted at the end of the project. Jonas Hoecht, being a huge Star Trek fan, decided on Voyager. It’s probably one of the more aerodynamic starships, so it’s an understandable decision. I’d have gone with the Defiant, though.
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