Tiny machines will be able to build themselves
Thursday 13 March 1997
Sometime in the new millennium, such machines could be injected into people to clean up their blood.
Now, using techniques borrowed from biology, a team at Harvard University in Massachusetts has taken the first step towards such self-assembling machines, by mixing together different parts with the required shape, adding some photosensitive glue, and mixing them until the shape they wanted appeared. A beam of ultraviolet light then set the glue.
With a market value estimated at pounds 40bn in the next 10 years, "nanotechnology" is attracting huge investment. But teams trying to make such systems - such as gears the size of pollen grains and electric motors smaller than a pinhead - have previously faced the same problem: it is very difficult to put the pieces together without dropping them. "In most fabrication, you do things by fixing them in place - welding or screwing them to something. They're systems which are metastable," said George Whitesides of Harvard's chemistry department.
His team tried using the assembly techniques of the human cell - certain shapes fit together, even at the molecular level, and that liquids and bubbles can bring surfaces into contact. Early experiments in a six-month project, reported today in the science journal Nature, produced millimetre- sized plastic components. The team aims to make machines which could be used to manufacture microelectronic and mechanical systems, Mr Whitesides said. That, though, could take 10 years.
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