Friday, May 13, 2016

Real Nanomachines, Son!

At times, it’s hard for me to imagine that we pulled it off, but it’s absolutely true. We learned to use viruses to make working batteries. How incredible is that! Our biomaterials module was the third and final module of 20.109. We used an engineered M13 bacteriophage to assemble an Iron-Phosphate/Gold Nanoparticle cathode for a battery. The cathode material would coat the viruses and the gold nanoparticles would space themselves along the viruses to conduct electricity. The crazy important detail is that we were able to arrange 5 nanometer diameter gold particles within 5 nanometer precision! Modules like these confirm my personal belief that mankind is capable of producing the smallest machines imaginable, specifically using biology.

     Many folks dream big about technological miniaturization, especially with regards to nanotech. Now more than ever before, exposure to science fiction media usually inspires these dreams. Hollywood films such as Transcendence (2014) like play around with swarming nanobots. Video games like the Metal Gear Solid franchise use nano machines as a plot device to handwave the fantastical abilities of its iconic bosses and playable characters.

Of course, to fully enjoy these stories, it’s necessary to suspend your disbelief. Yet, there are those out there who do have reason to believe that nanotech level miniaturization is inevitable. They may have faith that Moore’s Law is alive and currently bringing human-designed nanomachinery closer to the present day with exponential speed. They point to the explosion of solid-state electronics and micro tech that we currently know and love as the historical evidence. Who could have predicted single atom transistor? Who could have predicted the Macbook Pro 100 years ago? Who could have predicted how fast information sharing would be in 2016? 

While our technology has blown our minds and the wildest possible dreams of our ancestors, I want to be fair to these big dreamers and offer the idea that such nano systems would be hard to optimize further. According to some sources it would be outright impossible to get ANY smaller than nanometer-length wafers, such as Intel’s Sandy Bridge. Anything smaller runs into really bad interference with ambient electromagnetism and temperature effects. For instance, the single atom transistor needs to be kept around the same temperature as liquid nitrogen. Any nanobots using these revolutionary transistors would not feasibly work on our warm earth.

Biology on the other hand, works on the nanoscale all the time, and in ambient temperature conditions. Enzymes process chemicals on the nanoscale. Our Electron transport chain complexes conduct electrons across nanometer-scale gaps between electron carrier ions by exploiting quantum tunneling. Viruses are actually self-assembling nano-sized machines that replicate from harvested (bio)materials. Really, we can all benefit from understanding  that science fiction’s most unbelievable plot devices are actually all around us, ready to be engineered to realize the big dreams of humanity.

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