But what will it do?

Since we seem to be introducing ourselves, I guess it is my turn. By way of background, you can check out http://www.eotr-solutions.com/background.html. Richard has asked me to “say something” about where my interest in this area came from. Having worked in polymeric materials all of my professional career, I have spent lots of time trying to make systems and materials that do something that someone has value for. I think I have seen increased understanding of how structure – at all levels – determines functionality, but also come to realise that our ability to make things cost effectively and resource efficiently has lagged behind. I am not sure whether this is the right way to achieve this goal, but cannot see another option to explore at the moment!!

Put another way, for many years now, the materials industry has understood that customers don’t buy specific materials, or even single properties. They buy a combination of properties that satisfy the needs of their initial application. This desire to address a specific set of needs has led to a culture of “designed materials”. Of course, the precise link between requirements and materials and process selection are not as cut and dried as we wanted to believe, but nevertheless the goal of achieving this has been an important driver in linking theory, modelling and simulation, processing and testing. Part of this has been concerned with examining natural solutions to applications needs – and the huge interest in biomimetic structure and materials. There is an interesting distinction between slavish replication of biological materials, and the derivation of the underlying design rules and their application in alternative systems.

Now comes “software control of matter”. This potentially promises a means of applying the developing design rules. It also, by virtue of it implied action at the molecular and supramolecular, suggests that we can produce integrated materials which possess the required basket of properties that any specific applications demands. Again the parallel with nature applies. The DNA based route use by the nature we know is not necessarily the only way to go.

David Bott
The (pseudo) industrial Mentor
Software Control of Matter Ideas Factory

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4 Responses to “But what will it do?”


  1. 1 Chris Phoenix January 4, 2007 at 10:46 pm

    Something that we’re only barely starting to see is materials that can change their properties. There’s a polymer that becomes rigid when mechanically shocked–useful for protective sportswear, among other things. There are electrochromic window coatings. Surface coatings that change their hydrophobicity.

    When we get the ability to really put atoms where we want them, we’ll be able to build materials that not only can react to bulk phenomena, but can be programmed in detail. It starts with clothing fibers that can puff up for greater thermal insulation–just on the areas of your body that feel cold. Perhaps anti-turbulence airplane skins that don’t require MEMS.

    What new dance forms would be possible with shoes that had tuneable friction, from ice skates to sandpaper?

    Now take it a step further: materials with tuneable properties in multiple dimensions–appearance, stiffness, conductivity, energy dissipation–with enough embedded “smarts” to apply signals to specified volumes. Start with a solid block of material, program in fracture planes (curved if you like), hit it sharply, and you’ve got a shape. Or make it soft, bend it, make it rigid. Then program its other properties, and you’ve got a product. Great for rapid prototyping. If you don’t like how your product looks and feels, don’t rebuild it–just reprogram it. You could even provide field upgrades and user customization.

    If your manufacturing system lets you build structures that are heterogeneous at all levels, then perhaps the designers will be able to stop thinking in terms of materials and even subcomponents, and only specify function. At some point this merges with modular robotics. (Of course this would result in vastly over-engineered products, like architects building cottages with steel girders so they don’t have to do load calculations. But the design acceleration may eventually be worth it even for mass-market products. It certainly has been that way in computer software–at least 99% of your computer’s effort is going toward retroactively saving time for the designers.)

    Chris

  2. 2 Jack Dixon January 7, 2007 at 6:22 pm

    While there are more fanciful ideas on this, the most practical approach I have seen yet is:

    -Software 3D simulation of molecule with an atomic configuration based loosely on projected properties

    -Subject the modeled molecule to theoretical tests

    -Design of vectors to build the molecule, using DNA which can be replicated and then “activated” to work in a “soup” of basic materials

    -Subject actual molecules, processed out of the “soup” to real world tests

    Beyond the basics, achievement of the desired molecular properties once we can build them is the problem, and it is a big one. Long before humans came along, intelligence in the sense of response to stimulus existed in nature. I have no doubt we will soon be adding our own enhancements. But maybe the real question is how far we want to get ahead of ourselves; perhaps focus on a simple job with a huge payoff in the near future would be more sensible. In other words learn to walk before we try to run.

    Right now there is an opportunity close at hand which will result in making life much easier for all; solar photovoltaics. If we put our nanotechnology efforts into making production of these kinds of materials almost free, making rooftops and deserts provide our energy needs, it would solve immense political problems, environmental concerns, and quality of life issues for billions of people. Maybe then we could relax a bit and play with more “intelligent” materials.

  3. 3 Lee Cronin January 9, 2007 at 12:11 am

    What will it do? Three ideas:

    Multi ton syntheis of Taxol and derivatives (one of the best anti-cancer drugs known that are only avaialble from biological sources or in 0.05% yield after over 30 chemical steps).

    A device that can remove radioactive elements from waste streams.

    Produce solid state hard drives with over 1 Tb of storage.

    That is for starters.

  4. 4 brian wang January 9, 2007 at 1:46 am

    Terabit solid state memory
    Is already a target and plan for Samsung
    http://www.techreview.com/InfoTech/17907/

    Regular lithography and improvements

    Sandisk and Samsung already have 32 GB flash hard drive alternatives
    http://www.tomshardware.com/2007/01/04/ces2007_sandisk_32gb_ssd/

    More expensive 64GB flash HDD replacement in march, 2006 $2800
    http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2006/04/07/kanguru_pricey_64gb_flash_disk/

    64GB drives are planned for 2007
    http://www.techarena.in/comments.php?shownews=6232

    Samsung’s Hwang thinks they can double memory capacity every 12 months with flash. Which they have for 7 generations. He announced the new memory doubling theory back in 2002.
    http://www.samsung.com/PressCenter/PressRelease/PressRelease.asp?seq=20060911_0000286548

    2010 would be when they would have 1 terabyte drives probably at the $2000-3000 price point

    2011 for a more modestly priced version.

    Maintaining their 12 month doubling for 4 to 5 more iterations.

    Phase change Ram is an up and coming contender with smaller cell sizes and other improvements. (ovonics corp owns patents, licensed to Intel and others)

    Radiation and metal clean up from water also has several competing processes.

    Incremental improvement is stronger than many expect. Therefore, the targets cannot be too tame.


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