World's smallest ice etching created to welcome home Team GB

26 Feb 2018 16:05:07.203

Scientists at the University of Nottingham have created the world’s smallest ice etching for a welcome back message of congratulations to Team GB.

The ice message is smaller than the width of a human hair and has been created by scientists at the University’s Nanoscale and Microscale Research Centre (nmRC) who are specialists in cryogenic electron microscopy techniques. 

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The congratulatory message to Team GB follows their outstanding achievements at the Winter Olympics in Korea. The message reads ‘Congratulations Team GB from the University of Nottingham’ and was etched into ice containing gold nanoparticles. An image of it has been printed into a welcome home card and sent to the team.

The world’s smallest etching into ice!

The message was written by Dr Chris Parmenter using a Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM). The machine is capable of etching and manipulating materials with nanoscale precision using a focused beam of Gallium (Ga) ions, whilst imaging the structure using a beam of electrons. 

Chris is part of the interdisciplinary group of scientists who hold the world record for creating the smallest test tube and for writing the smallest version of the periodic table on a human hair, he also put a birthday message for the Queen’s 90th onto a Corgi Hair.

Dr Parmenter explains how the ice etching was done: “Samples in the electron microscope are placed into a vacuum, which makes working with samples containing water particularly difficult. To stop the water from evaporating, the sample is frozen as quickly as possible to lock in the structure. The ice that you may see on a cold day is crystalline ice where, on cooling, the water molecules become more ordered and grow into the fractal patterns that you associate with snowflakes.  The type of ice that we use is vitreous ice and we create this ice by cooling water extremely quickly - the word ‘vitreous’ comes from the Latin word for glass.  This prevents the water molecules from forming ordered structures (crystals) and instead allows us to fix objects within the ice, which we can then visualise – like a fly in amber.”

Science of freezing water

The science of freezing water for use within the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) has been in development since the 1960s, and last year the development of the technique of cryogenic-Transmission Electron Microscopy (Cryo-TEM) was recognised by the award of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The controlled formation of vitreous ice allows the analysis of the tiniest biological structures, without the presence of crystalline ice that would otherwise disrupt them, paving the way for new technologies in healthcare applications. 

Icy conditions

Ice is an essential part of the Winter Olympic Games, but many people don’t realise the time taken to slowly grow the ice layer by layer and then to keep it at optimal condition for the elite athletes. Optimum conditions vary from each different sport for example curling compared with bobsleigh or ice dance, where the top surface is used and treated differently to avoid frost. In cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) we also want to avoid frost, but we do the opposite, freezing as quickly as possible to lock in our samples, but trying to avoid ice crystals.

Professor Andrei Khlobstov. Director of nmRC said: “Much of the coverage of the winter olympics has talked about the conditions of the ice or snow and techniques being used to gain optimum conditions for the athletes.  Water molecules in ice are held together by hydrogen bonds, with each molecule interacting with four neighbouring molecules. A combination of friction and pressure applied on the ice surface by a skate or a ski makes water molecules slide with respect to their neighbours, which makes the surface slippery and enables winter Olympians to perform their record-breaking feats. There are about 17 different forms of crystalline ice where the molecules are ordered in different ways, but the most useful form of ice for cryo electron microscopy is vitreous (or amorphous) ice where water molecules are disordered, which can form by a quick freezing of liquid water in the lab.” 

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Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named University of the Year for Graduate Employment in the 2017 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

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Story credits

More information is available from Karen Alvey on 0115 748 6340 or

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager (Faculty of Science)

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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