Western University scientist builds world’s ‘smallest snowman’ from silica spheres

Twitter / @WesternNanofab

Days before Christmas, a research scientist at an Ontario university has created a microscopic figure he’s calling the world’s “smallest snowman.”

Todd Simpson, from Western University’s Nanofabrication Facility, says the figure was made from three incredibly tiny silica spheres stacked on top of each other, with arms and a nose made of platinum.

The facility published an image of the tiny smiling figure online and Simpson says he’s amazed at the buzz it has generated.

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“It’s just a compelling little image, especially for the time of year,” he said.

Simpson said he made the figure just to promote the kind of work the lab does.

“It’s not easy to find something that’s easy for people to comprehend – most of what we do is pretty complicated and probably kind of boring to most,” he said. “It’s not something we set out to make, it was something that I found on a sample made for another purpose but it only took a few minutes to give him arms and a face and a nose.”

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The minuscule figure actually traces its beginnings to December 2005, when Simpson said he was working on a process to fabricate silica spheres and found some instances of three of them stacked together, resembling a snowman.

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At that time, he used an annotation feature of a microscope software program to draw a face and arms on an image of one triple stack and placed the picture on the lab’s Christmas card.

This year, Simpson took things further and used a Focused Ion Beam instrument to create physical platinum arms and facial features for the triple stack of silica spheres.

“I’ve been meaning to do this for a while,” he said. “It’s obviously something you want to do just before Christmas. I had the sample sitting there, waiting for a chance … I had some spare time so I just popped it in and made it up.”

The figure is less than 3 microns tall – for comparison, a human hair is about 50 microns in diameter – and can only be seen with an electron microscope, Simpson said.

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The miniature figure, which sits on a silicon wafer, has now been placed in its carrier box and stored in the lab, Simpson said.

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“If we ever want to bring it out we can find it,” he said.

A Western University research scientist has built what he calls the world’s smallest snowman.
A Western University research scientist has built what he calls the world’s smallest snowman. Twitter / WesternNanofab