Here’s a brief description of the first experimental project generated by the Ideas Factory. This is not yet an officially announced and approved EPSRC project; various administrative steps remain to be completed, including a more formal costing. However, we anticipate that this project will receive slightly less than half of the £1.5 million available for the ideas factory.
We propose to create a molecular machine that will build new materials under software control. The output of the machine will be chains of building blocks linked by covalent bonds. The machine is modular and is designed to accept many different building blocks, from small molecules to nanoparticles, with a wide range of physical and chemical properties. In order to drive its development we will concentrate on using it to create two target products: a molecular wire, capable of transporting energy and electrical charge, and a catalyst. Software control starts with specification by the end-user of a sequence of building blocks. The target sequence is encoded in an instruction tape which can be read by the machine: the tape is itself a molecule, a synthetic DNA oligomer. The target sequence of building blocks is automatically converted into a control sequence of DNA bases, and the tape is produced by commercial solid-phase synthesis. The job of the machine is to read the instruction tape and to form the bonds between building blocks in the specified sequence. Every component of this molecular factory is itself a molecule: our ambition is to develop the system to the point where it could be distributed to end users as chemicals in plastic vials.
This project was developed by a team from Oxford, Southampton, Cambridge, Exeter Queen’s Belfast and York Universities. The project leader is Andrew Turberfield (Oxford), and the main collaborators are Rachel O’Reilly (Cambridge) and Eugen Stulz (Southampton), with additional contributions from Fred Currell (Queens Belfast), Andy Tyrell (York), and Nicola King (Exeter).