While crystallizing an ingredient commonly found in soap and vegetable oil, scientists in India witnessed something unexpected. The substance, a fatty acid called sodium myristate, assembled into microscopic, potterylike arrangements. Janhavi Raut and her colleagues at Unilever Research India in Bangalore were stunned. “We spent days just looking at these beautiful structures,” says Raut.
The researchers heated a solution of sodium myristate and slowly cooled it. As the solution cooled, the fatty acid molecules assembled into fibers, which then curled into rings. Other fibers then wrapped around the rings to produce three-dimensional hollow structures resembling works in progress on a potter’s wheel. Given their edible makeup, such microstructures might someday be useful for storing nutrients in foods, the researchers suggest in an upcoming Langmuir.