December 3, 2003

New 'Nanoguitar' Strums in Future

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Six years after developing the world’s smallest guitar, Cornell researchers have again blended nanoscience and music to build another guitar that illustrates the possibilities created when ultra-tiny mechanisms are mobilized.

This new nanoguitar is 40 micrometers long — less than half the width of a human hair. Even at that size, it’s much bigger than its predecessor, a “Fender Stratocaster,” the size of a red blood cell. This new guitar, however, is playable. “The bigger the strings, the more laser light they interact with, and the easier the are to play,” said Keith Aubin grad, who helped to build the instrument. He added jokingly not to worry if the guitar were dropped, “We have specially trained ants to search for any nanothings we might drop.”

However, budding rock stars should leave their picks at home. The guitar is “played” by a concentrated laser beam that causes the strings to vibrate at frequencies 17 octaves higher than sounds the human ear can process. Those vibrations are then converted to audible tones to produce a “song.” The first song to be played on the guitar was the Bugle Call from Amazing Grace.

“The original nanoguitar was built in order to increase awareness of nanotechnology,” Aubin said. The newer model demonstrates what happens when tiny mechanisms, like the guitar, are agitated.

“Creating a device shaped like a guitar is a useful educational tool to engage students and others in discussion of the physics of this class of resonant devices,” said Prof. Harold Craighead, applied and engineer physics, and co-director of the Nanobiotechnology Center.

When the guitar was completed this February, the group of students working with Craighead included then-graduate student Lidija Sekaric, Keith Aubin grad, and Jingqing Huang ’05.

The four used a technology called electron beam lithography to create the guitar and similar non-musical instruments. Utilizing a computer-designed drawing of the guitar, they carved out the pattern on a silicon wafer.

“The guitar, in fact many guitars, are rigidly attached to a large piece of silicon about the size of a dime or larger. The devices are more or less ‘carved’ out of the block of silicon to which they remain permanently attached,” Craighead said.

Although the playable guitar is a fairly new development, Sekaric pointed out, “We have been ‘playing’ or actuating nanoelectromechanical structures for years.”

In fact, Craighead and his team of researchers have dedicated considerable time to studying how the tiny mechanisms they create can be made to oscillate.

Nanotechnology, according to the researchers, has a bright future. “Ultimately devices that involve some mechanical motion could replace some purely electronic devices or be used for environmental sensors or medical diagnostic devices,” Craighead said.

Archived article by Irena Djuric