28 April 2007

Machines Blending with Life on a Micro-Scale

MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) technology is results oriented. While MEMS workers may be engineers by training, they are not above borrowing from biology--or even integrating biologic organisms--in their work.
The scientists grouped the microorganisms into four areas of use: material synthesis, precise structure formation, as functional devices, and integrated into controllable systems. All the microorganisms studied were less than 1 millimeter in size, and made of one or just a few cells.

As the scientists showed, microorganisms have the ability to synthesize at least 64 different inorganic materials used in MEMS technology, in a process called “biomineralization.” Scientists have fossil evidence of this process dating back more than 700 million years. By genetically modifying this process, scientists might be able to produce MEMS materials such as silicon dioxide, biogenic calcite, and magnets.

For example, magnetic bacteria naturally synthesize magnetosome crystals, which act as a compass needle inside the bacteria aligning with the earth’s magnetic field. These bacteria always swim in one direction and accumulate in one side of the water, depending on the hemisphere; however, they can also be controlled by an external magnetic field.

Compared with conventional MEMS synthesis methods, which often involve high temperatures, corrosive gases, vacuums and plasma, synthesis using microorganisms could be done at room temperature, at near-neutral pH, and in aqueous solutions.

Other microorganisms can form intricate structures—such as gold or silver crystals—using a simpler process than conventional photolithography systems. These structures can grow up to three dimensions and be modified with nanoscale precision. Microorganisms can even generate structures a few orders of magnitude larger than themselves, offering the opportunity to interface with the macroscopic world. The scientists mentioned how the spicules in one deep-sea sponge demonstrate excellent fiber-optical properties.

Several times in the past, Al Fin has reiterated how important it is for nanotechnologists to learn from biology. The co-opting of biology by MEMS research is on a cruder level than I was thinking of, but it is a necessary transition on the way to two things:

  1. Synthetic Biology
  2. True Molecular Nanoassembly

Neither of these goals will be easy to achieve, but once achieved, both will lead to revolutionary, massively disruptive change. Humans are not now ready for such change, but we all hope that humans can learn--quickly.

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