Researchers in Rice University’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics say they’ve created nanorice" — rice-shaped nanoparticles of gold and iron oxide.

On the nanoscale, the shape of a particle plays a critical role in how it interacts with light, said laboratory director Naomi Halas. We were looking for a new shape that would combine the best properties of the two most optically useful shapes — spheres and rods. It’s just a coincidence that that shape turned out to look exactly like a grain of rice.

Nanoparticles, like nanorice, can be used to focus light on small regions of space. Rice’s scientists plan to capitalize on this by attaching grains of nanorice to scanning probe microscopes. By moving the grains next to proteins and unmapped features on the surfaces of cells, they hope to get a far clearer picture than what’s available with current technology.

The nanorice the scientists produced were about 360 nanometers long and about 80 nanometers in diameter. One nanometer equals one-millionth of a millimeter.

The research will appear in the April 12 issue of Nano Letters.