Imagine singing "Oh, say, can you see" to a flag you can't see.
That's what graduate students at the University of Texas at Dallas had in mind when they created the likeness of an American flag so small it would take more than 10 to span the width of a human hair.
While the work of electrical engineering students Jang-Bae Jeon and Carlo Foresca has so far been rejected by the Guinness Book of World Records, they hope the process will lead to advances in nanotechnology, a world of creations viewed only through microscopes.
"Most of this nanotechnology is two-dimensional," said Moon Kim, the engineering professor who oversaw the project. "This gives the opportunity to build three-dimensional stuff."
The image of the flag — complete with all 50 stars and 13 stripes — is 7 microns tall, compared to the 100-micron width of a human hair.
It was transferred onto a silicon wafer using a machine that follows the shape of any bitmap image file. The flag and its pole were cut using an ion beam — a microscopic version of a laser — and lifted to a standing position by a nano manipulator.
[One micron, also known as a micrometer, is one millionth of a meter. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.]
"Using the nano manipulator we can actually pick up something and bring it up to a point — that's the revolutionary thing," Jeon said. "We can use that technique for the semiconductor industry. If somebody wants to modify a circuit, we can cut something and connect it again."
Jeon and Foresca spent months working on the U.S. flag and a Texas flag even smaller — 4 microns. They used equipment from Zyvex, a nanotechnology company based in Richardson.
"We were trying to show what capabilities our machine had," Foresca said.
And Kim said they would probably try Guinness again sometime.
"They told us they don't have a method to actually see the flag," Jeon said.