Archive for December, 2006

Software control of matter – your ideas welcome

One of the purposes of this public blog for the EPSRC Ideas Factory was to open up the process to anyone interested. When the sandpit begins, on January 8, we’ll be writing about the process as it happens. But we’d also be very interested in any ideas any readers of the blog might have. You might have an opinion about how we might achieve this goal in practise; you might have thoughts about what kinds of materials one might hope to make in this way; or you might have thoughts about why – for what social benefit, or economic gain – you might want to make these materials and devices.

All readers are invited to comment on the thoughts they might have through the comment facility on the Ideas Factory blog. Towards the end of next week, I’ll start putting up some posts asking for comments, and if we get any suggestions, we will feed the suggestions in to the participants of the Ideas Factory, using the blog to report back reactions. One of the mentors for the Ideas Factory – Jack Stilgoe, from the thinktank Demos – will collate and report the comments to the group. Jack’s a long-time observer of the nanotech scene, but he’s not a nanoscientist himself, so he won’t have any preconceptions of what might or might not work.

Richard Jones
Director

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“If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.”

EPSRC SANDPIT – SOFTWARE CONTROL OF MATTER AT THE ATOMIC OR MOLECULAR SCALE

What is a Sandpit?
A sandpit is a residential interactive workshop over 5 days involving 20-30 participants, a director and a number of independent stakeholders. An essential element of a sandpit is a highly multidisciplinary mix of participants taking part to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to addressing particular research challenges.

A sand-pit is an intensive discussion forum where free-thinking is encouraged to delve deep into the problems on the agenda in order to uncover innovative solutions. The sand-pit is led by the Director, whose role will be to define the topic and facilitate discussions at the sand-pit. This sand-pit will be led by Professor Richard Jones of the University of Sheffield. Working with the Director and participants will be a team of professional facilitators who will also help steer participants through the process.

Event photo
Roleplay

The Challenge

Can we design and construct a device or scheme that can arrange atoms or molecules according to an arbitrary, user-defined blueprint?

This is at the heart of the idea of the software control of matter – the creation, perhaps, of a “matter compiler” which will interpret software instructions to output a macroscopic product in which every atom is precisely placed. Progress towards this goal would significantly open up the range of available functional materials, permitting meta-materials with interesting electronic, optoelectronic, optical and magnetic properties.

One route to this goal might be to take inspiration from 3-d rapid prototyping devices, and conceive of some kind of pick-and-place mechanism operating at the atomic or molecular level, perhaps based on scanning probe techniques. On the other hand, the field of DNA nanotechnology gives us examples of complex structures built by self-assembly, in which the program to guide the construction is implicit within the structure of the building blocks themselves. This problem, then, goes beyond surface chemistry and the physics of self-assembly to some fundamental questions in computer science.

The Outputs?

The sand pit will produce

Novelty in ideas
Novelty in methodology
Novelty in teams

Leading to new, fully funded, exciting research activities.

Paul Rouse
EPSRC

EPSRC logoIdeas factory logo

Ideas factory: Software Control of Matter

From January 8 2007, around 20 scientists from all disciplines will spend a week trying to think through new and innovative approaches to making nanomaterials and devices, in a programme funded by the UK’s government funding agency for engineering and the physical sciences EPSRC . At the end of the process, it is hoped that some definite research proposals will emerge, and £1.5 million (i.e. not far short of US$ 3 million) has been set aside to fund these. The challenge, as defined by the call, is as follows:

“Can we design and construct a device or scheme that can arrange atoms or molecules according to an arbitrary, user-defined blueprint? This is at the heart of the idea of the software control of matter – the creation, perhaps, of a “matter compiler” which will interpret software instructions to output a macroscopic product in which every atom is precisely placed. Even partial progress towards this goal would significantly open up the range of available functional materials, permitting meta-materials with interesting electronic, optoelectronic, optical and magnetic properties.

One route to this goal might be to take inspiration from 3-d rapid prototyping devices, and conceive of some kind of pick-and-place mechanism operating at the atomic or molecular level, perhaps based on scanning probe techniques. On the other hand, the field of DNA nanotechnology gives us examples of complex structures built by self- assembly, in which the program to guide the construction is implicit within the structure of the building blocks themselves. This problem, then, goes beyond surface chemistry and the physics of self-assembly to some fundamental questions in computer science.

This ideas factory should attract surface physicists and chemists, including specialists in scanning probe and nanorobotic techniques, and those with an interest in self-assembling systems. Theoretical chemists, developmental biologists, and computer scientists, for example those interested in agent-based and evolutionary computing methods and emergent behaviour, will also be able to contribute. “

This blog is intended to open up this process to anyone interested. We’ll be posting reports from the meeting as it happens, but more importantly, I hope that people will use it as a vehicle for inputting any thoughts they have on the subject: ideas for how, technically, one might move towards the goal of “software control of matter”, thoughts about what one might use the materials and devices that might result for, any comments about broader societal and ethical issues that might arise.

Richard Jones
Director