BYU engineers helped build a microscopic, functioning Nerf blaster
In Mark Rober’s latest sure-to-be-viral video, he pursues an epic journey to make the world’s tiniest Nerf blaster. That journey leads the engineer and YouTuber extraordinaire straight to his alma mater, Brigham Young University.
“I knew I wanted to use nanotechnology and that I needed to go to the school that was kind of the cutting edge, that led in this field,” Rober said. “It just so happens that was my alma mater, BYU.”
For almost a year now, Rober, a 2004 mechanical engineering grad, has been working closely with BYU mechanical engineering professors Larry Howell and Brian Jensen, and a cadre of students, on the “banger idea,” as Rober puts it.
“The very first question I asked Mark was, ‘How small do you want to get?’” Jensen said. “We decided to aim on making a dart that was about 100 micrometers across — which is about the same width as a hair. I felt good about that because that’s actually a really good size for the technologies that we typically use for making tiny things. But of course, you never know what the challenges are going to be.”
One challenge, according to Howell, was to design a solid, one-piece compliant mechanism that could replace the many, many pieces of a traditional Nerf blaster. It was critical that they nailed down the right design so it worked at a large scale, a small scale, and then a microscopic scale, manufactured using carbon nanotube technologies.
Another challenge was using the right technology to create something that small. Jensen said 3D printing wasn’t going to cut it, so they turned to photolithography — the process used to make computer chips. Needless to say, the highly technical challenge took months of trial and error.
“Dr. Howell was urging us, saying, “Pray that it will work out because I know it'll work out,” said Aliya Bascom, an undergraduate BYU student who worked on the project. “If we have faith and we seek inspiration, not only will this work, but it will work so much better than we would even imagine.”
Rober and his team visited campus this fall to finish the project and film the results: a nano-sized Nerf blaster, roughly the size of a fleck of pepper, that successfully shoots a microscopic dart at a worthy (but disinterested) opponent: an ant.
“The fact that we could actually load it, get the gun ready to fire, have a dart in there, pull the trigger, and then actually have the compliant mechanism hit the dart and have it fire next to an ant — and the ant is like gargantuan compared to this thing… Completely surprising. Delightful. Amazing. Lovely. All the superlatives,” Rober said.
In addition to creating the awesome video, Rober and BYU’s team have made their designs available to the general public through websites that support 3D printable files. Howell also wrote a newly published opinion piece in the highly ranked journal Nature Communications about the work his lab is doing with engineering outreach that ties into the Mark Rober collaboration.
“So here’s, you know, one of the most famous engineers in the world, right? And he’s coming to the lab and working with the students and they got to interact with him,” Howell said of the experience working with Rober. “He is genuinely a good person and a good guy and treated everyone so kindly. It was everything we’d hoped for.”
For his part, Rober said the students he worked with were incredible.
“I mean, you’d expect nothing less from, you know, the kind of engineering students that BYU produces,” Rober said with a smile. “The relationships and the people you meet here at such a formative time in your life — I have a lot of fond memories of BYU and they occupy a very special place in my heart.”