Trawling through the vast halls of Maison&Objet makes for tired eyes, so organizers endeavoured to give visitors an added dash of visual stimulus. At Nature Made, an exhibition curated by François Bernard, nanotechnology researcher Wim Noorduin presented Self-Assembled Micro-Structures, an investigation into the potential of chemically sculpted objects. Noorduin made his minute landscapes – smaller than the width of a human hair – visible to the naked eye with enlarged 3D-printed models and a slightly retro wall of anaglyph images that allowed visitors wearing 3D glasses to see what the nanotechnologist examines with his electron microscope.

Has your research been exhibited elsewhere?
Wim Noorduin: So far my work has been mainly presented for a specialized scientific audience. This was the first time I showed some of my work to people with often entirely different backgrounds, so I'm very excited about seeing how people react to this work. 

Why did you decide to exhibit at Maison&Objet? 
I was contacted by Francois Bernard and his team. They were setting up an inspirational exhibition for Maison&Objet named Nature Made. I was initially completely surprised (and flattered) that I was asked for this exhibition in which the design principles that are found in natural processes are being explored to make objects. The idea of this exhibition fits in very well with the bio-inspired, self-assembly strategies that I have been investigating together with Professor Joanna Aizenberg for the last few years. I really liked the idea that this exhibition would allow me to focus on the general principles behind the research, the way I chemically sculpt structures, and share my passion for the resulting micro-landscapes that can be made rather than focussing on the understanding of the scientific details that allow this level of control.

What exactly was shown on the wall – that was viewed through the 3D glasses – and why did you choose to show it in this way?
The process that I have been developing allows you to grow highly complex structures that are much smaller than the width of a human hair by precisely controlling the chemical environment in which the structures develop. Because the architectures are so small, we need use an electron microscope to zoom in. I grow these structures typically on a surface the size of a postage stamp and it can contain thousands of these structures. When viewed through an electron microscope, these highly complex landscapes are so vast that you can get completely lost. Over the years, I took many images of these structures with the electron microscope but one thing that was missing from the images was the three dimensionality of these micro-landscapes. I decided to use the electron microscope to take two images under different viewing angles and combine them to make 3D images of the architectures, thus visualizing that this is really a three dimensional world that you can explore. 

I am also extremely interested in making complete three dimensional reconstructions of the micro-structures. Together with my collaborators Dr. James Weaver from Harvard University and Dr. Sergio Bertazzo at Imperial College London, I developed a way to first grow the structures, cut them into minute slices and then combine these slices to get the exact 3D information of the structure. Subsequently we used a 3D printer to print a reconstruction of the microstructure at a length scale that you can actually see with the naked eye. I found it very fascinating to hold the shape in my hand of a structure that I first sculpted at a much smaller scale. Some of the very first structures that we made with this technique were also shown at the exhibition to show the visitors the complexity of the architecture.

Is the research still ongoing?
Absolutely. We are understanding more and more about the details of the underlying mechanism that governs the growth of these structures and nowadays I have even better control over the exact shape, such that we are now working on practical structures that can for instance be used to manipulate light. I am continually amazed about the possibilities of these self-assembly processes.

What do you hope the outcome of this research will be?
Inspired by processes that are occurring in nature, I'm exploring how the simple interplay between physical and chemical processes can lead to the emergence of complexity. Understanding processes that lead to the spontaneous formation of complexity can not only help us to fundamentally understand how such complexity arises in natural processes, but it can also lead to new ways for making complex micro-shapes in practical applications such as optics and catalysis. 

Another interesting side of the research that has been very exciting for me, is the collaboration with high school students. Since the experimental techniques are very simple and visually attractive, students at high schools perform these experiments in the classroom and create their own landscapes. These classroom experiments demonstrate this as an accessible way to make highly intricate shapes at a scale much smaller than can be seen with the naked eye.