Biologists may modify biological organisms to grow the next generation of electrical and communications components and chemists may create chemical reactions to create computer chips.
Dr. Meyya Meyyappan met me at the front gate of NASA's Ames Research Facility at the Moffet Field Air Force Base just outside Mountain View in California and signed me in. We walked past the gigantic buildings that house the largest wind tunnels the world. "This is where new aircraft and space shuttle parts are tested," explains the soft-spoken Meyyappan, who like the many of the scientists, engineers and inventors that I have met in the United States, emigrated from India. "They keep it maintained but it is not used so much any more because there are fewer and fewer new aircrafts being developed today."
In fact you could call this NASA's past. "Much of the aerospace development is now farmed out to the private sector," says Dr. Meyyappan, Director of the Center for Nanotechnology. We walk past the some aircraft hangers and arrive at the NASA Space Museum, where the Northern California Nanotechnology Initiative is holding a one-day conference.
Seated at the conference are people like Dr. Ralph Merkle, co-creator of public key cryptography and long time nanotechnology advocate. It's your usual science fare. Speeches, slides, and PowerPoint presentations. NASA is hosting the conference in an attempt to foster the growth of nanotechnology, or molecular manufacturing, which deals with the creation of objects or materials using atoms or molecules as the building blocks. "Our laboratory is part of a US government $700 million investment across six research establishments but we are the largest research facility with over 70 people," says Meyyappan.
This is NASA's Future
But it's not so long ago that nanotechnology was considered a kind of crackpot science. It seemed to attract the Trekkies of physics and medicine. The problem was that its building blocks were just too small to work with, so mostly we could just prod the atoms or molecules with the tips of atomic force microscopes. Now however, the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology and chemical engineering is beginning to open the doors to whole new areas of science whereby we will grow, mix or genetically engineer new materials and electronic components.
For example, Panasonic and Sony are using heat-resistant proteins to grow into place atoms or microdots for storage and display applications. Scientists at HP are working on growing nano scale wires and researchers at Bell Labs are working on growing micro-photonic crystals that can be used as micro lenses in optical networking.
Biology is becoming the future of electronics. This means that biotech could become the new electrical engineering, materials science and molecular manufacturing.
"I think that biology is going to become the catalyst for creating nano-electronics in the future," says Charles Ostman, president of Berkeley Design, a consultancy advises the venture capital community about biotech investments. "You see, nature can just do this stuff a whole lot better that we can."
So we are now entering an age where we will use biological materials and possibly even biological organisms to create a new breed (pardon the pun) of electronic and communications components.
Indeed, such technology may provide with us the rubber, plastic and silicon materials of tomorrow, according to Ostman. For this reason research establishments such as NASA, JPL and Lawrence Livermore, the universities such as Stanford, UCLA, and NYU and companies such as HP, IBM, Sun, and Lucent Bell Labs as well as the biotech companies that are developing the science and more importantly the patents for this new technology.
But there are several significant limitations. Science does not have tools small enough to build anything at the molecular level. This is called the Fat Fingers problem because it is difficult to thread an extremely small needle with big fingers. So, scientists concluded, that nanoscale materials and components have to "self assemble." Furthermore, science does not have the ability to produce the raw materials so they will have to self-replicate.
So three approaches to molecular manufacturing emerged more or less out of the three branches of science. Biology - binding one or more molecules together using genetic engineering. Physics - binding them uses physical principals such as magnetization or lithography. Chemistry - binding them by mixing them with fats or amino acids to make them sticky. In reality all three approaches are needed. You need to be able to mix components in a beaker like you do chemistry that would enable self-assembly. Allow them to self-replicate and grow like you do in biology and have them adhere to the principals of physics or - because of their size - quantum physics. How? Well in 1994, Dr Mark Watkins at the University of Geneva in Switzerland came up with the concept of using proteins as building blocks for molecular manufacturing or nanotechnology (although the field of proteomes a lot wider than this). The idea is to genetically engineer a protein so that it can be mixed with a metallic particle such as gold and that this can be grown into structures. That way you don't have to place the particles. The protein's genetic material can then be spliced with e.coli bacteria so that large amounts can be grown in vats - using e.coli as type of surrogate mother.
Sony and Panasonic are using a similar technique to place quantum particles so that they can build displays and tiny storage devices. But they are not alone many companies and research institutions are looking at similar techniques to place atoms or molecules. Others, such as HP are looking to use the proteins as the electrical components such as switches.
A Whole New Type of Virus
However, we have some way to go before we use using living components in commercial electronics, according to Yigal Blum, a consultant with the Stanford Research Institute.
"I am not convinced that proteins are the most efficient units. They are pretty big and it's still difficult to produce them in industrial quantities," says Blum. "Such components would be quite delicate. For example, they would be too sensitive to heat."
They would also be susceptible to disease, he says. This could create a whole new spin on computer viruses.
Blum thinks that it is more likely that we will use nano crystals in the near future. At Lucent's Bell Labs last summer, Joanna Aizenberg discovered that a starfish called "brittle star" had several single crystal micro lenses. Such tiny lenses, she discovered had the ability to focus light onto a photosensitive nerve. What's more, the nerves and the lenses work like eyes focusing on an object. The discovery was significant because this could be artificially grown and used in optical networking.
Another field that looks promising is dendrimer chemistry. Dendrimers are 3-macromolecules that are now considered to be one of the basic building blocks for the construction of nanoscale devices. They are closely related to polymers but they can be useful because these tree-shaped synthetic molecules have the ability to capture smaller molecules in their cavities, making them perfect to deal with biological and chemical contaminants. They are also being developed to create, manufacture, mix or grow tiny electrical components.
Certainly, it will be some time before we can grow or brew electrical and communications commercially. However, one thing is certain, we are getting to the stage where we will take a cue from nature as to how to create materials and devices. As Ostman noted it's a whole lot better at manufacturing than we are. And the companies that will be the leaders in this maybe what we now consider to be biotech companies. And the smartest electronics companies are those that are investing in the research and patenting these new ideas. That way biology will provide the next generation of computer and communications hardware and DNA or genetic engineering will be its software. So those electrical engineers who are looking for a future would do well to brush up on their biology.
"There is a great need for scientists who are multi-disciplined experts in biology physics and chemistry," says Ostman. "And there are just too few around now to create these new applications."
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Niall McKay is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo Japan. He can be reached at www.niall.org.