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Intelligent ink: the world of Tiny-big

by John Shirley

Republished Courtesy of John Shirley from edge trends

Intelligence makes things go faster on every level, including the microscopic.

Sandia National Laboratories has come up with an "intelligent ink" that is formed of responsive "nanostructures" that perform work. It's ideal for those "wishing to directly write - rather than mechanically construct - sensor arrays and fluidic or photonic systems," says project leader Jeff Brinker.

The journal Nature reports that scientists were able to use these self-assembling inks to write patterns that "possess external form and internal function" - 3-D ink, that becomes functioning, self-assembling nanoscopic material. Its pores behave as little sensors or valves, machines so small that next to them a grain of sand would be a skyscraper. They have, they claim, fabricated a substance that "organizes itself."

Miniaturization at Sandia has also led to something like the little hand-held scanners envisioned in Star Trek - a 'micro-chem-lab' small enough to fit inside a snow-pea pod.

The tiny becomes the gigantic; the vast is ultimately a function of the microscopic. One single-celled protozoan in the sea becomes two, then four, eventually billions -- and becomes a red tide, transforming large parts of the Gulf of Mexico to a morass of scarlet poison. A hurricane front, hundreds of miles across, sweeps mightily over that same sea elsewhere, carrying vast clouds of flood-rain in its juggernaut walls of wind -- but a hurricane is ultimately made up of individual molecules, sub-microscopically minute atmospheric particles interacting in gargantuan complexity, the sum of the parts becoming …Hurricane Andrew. And of course a simple spring-shower rain cloud -- a good thing, usually -- is made up of many individual raindrops.

I relate this dynamic to "catastrophe theory". To quote from the Dictionary of Modern Thought: …There are often certain critical values of the input where a small change produces a very large change in the output - 'a catastrophe'. We associate the term catastrophe with destructiveness, negativity, but in this context it simply describes the action o

The same dynamic is seen in the works of humanity …which should become especially dramatic when nanotechnology starts showing real interactivity with our lives. Right now it's more than theoretical -- but less than practical. Every day nanotech, however, gets closer to becoming a practical reality. Science writer Carl Hall reports on the work of a team of scientists at the University of California at Santa Barbara -- collaborating with Japanese scientists -- who're using a two-story-tall electronic microscope (a gigantic device for delving into the tiny, you notice) to create nano-sized three-dimensional objects of etched glass, as well as chemical-trapping cages, molecular pores and other structural elements as small as one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair. Pores in the three-dimensional nanodevice could be used as holding tanks for useful enzymes. These could be used in tandem with biomolecular motors.

Which motors? Cornell's Carlo Montemagno reports that biomolecular motors -- driven by ATP, the fuel for our muscles -- can be used to spin microscopic propellers, demonstrating "how biological and engineered components can be linked with amazing precision" on a nanometric scale. According to Hall, it's a prototype of hybrid bioengineered machinery that someday might be used to deliver drugs to individual cells in the body.

The Ernst and Young report compiled for the biotech conference in San Diego maintains that "biotechnology has the potential to be the defining industry during the decades ahead".

"If you look at history, and you see what happened when we made the transition from the agricultural era to the information age, this period has all the earmarks of being another big shift," says E&Y consultant Scott Morrison. And it's primarily about DNA-a tiny molecule with a huge responsibility.

The report quotes nanotech visionaries Eric Drexler and Stuart Kauffman, who suggest that nanomachines will have to be "self organizing systems" guided by relatively intelligent internal mechanisms -- efficient remote control on a microscopic scale is difficult to envisage.

Republished Courtesy of John Shirley from edge trends

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