Nanotechnology enabled synthetic biology could one day lead to an artificial construct that operates like a living cell. That day might be a considerable distance off, given the difficulties scientists are still having in even understandiing the organizing principles and workings of a cell, not to mention being able to duplicate cell components and assembling them into a working whole. The large discrepancy between the functional density (i.e., the number of components or interconnection of components per unit volume) of cells and engineered systems highlights the inherent challenges posed by such a task. Just take 'simple' bacteria like Escherichia coli (which has an approx. 2 square micrometer cross-sectional area). The E. coli cell has some 4.6-million base-pair chromosome (the equivalent of a 9.2 megabit memory) that codes for as many as 4,300 different polypeptides under the inducible control of several hundred different promoters. The most advanced silicon chips will be able in a few years time to come close to this performance (on the other hand, you have several trillion E. coli in your gut; you would need to swallow a lot of computer chips to match this combined 'computing' power). Another way to look at the synthetic cell challenge is to regard the cellular environment as a highly complex synthetic medium, in which numerous multistep reactions take place simultaneously with an efficiency and specificity that scientists are not capable of duplicating at this scale. Researchers in The Netherlands have now succeeded in constructing nanoreactors that can be used to perform one-pot multistep reactions - another step towards the goal of artificial cell-like devices, but more promising in the short term for screening and diagnostic applications.
Proponents of 'atomically precise manufacturing' and 'molecular manufacturing' love to talk about the mind-boggling possibilities that these technologies would offer. These visions range from the modest, such as improved materials and more efficient production methods for chemicals (already on the horizon), to the outrageous, such as molecular desktop fabs (far, far out). Articles about revolutionary nanotechnology almost always skip the hard part, i.e. the tremendous amount of research breakthroughs that are required to get from where we are today to the promised land. It's as if some flight enthusiasts in 1903, when Orville Wright took off on the first powered flight, would have debated first class cabin design of 600-seat jet airliners flying New York - Tokyo non-stop. Nanotechnology researchers today are still struggling with very basic problems such as being able to control the synthesis of nanoparticles. It might come as a bit of a shock to the nanotechnology enthusiasts among you, but even something utterly fundamental as synthesizing metal nanoparticles today is more of an empirical trial and error approach than a predictable, fully controlled process. Let's take a look at new research coming out of a Spanish university that exemplifies the tiny, yet elementary, steps researchers need to take to master the nanoscale.
Contamination of superhydrophobic surfaces with low-surface-tension organic liquids is one of the leading reasons why superhydrophobic surfaces are not widely used in practical applications. If engineers were to succeed in creating a surface that repels any liquid the practical implications obviously would be substantial. In new work, researchers use metastable states to control wetting properties of solids. Since there is a much wider range of potentially available metastable states than thermodynamically stable states, the approach can greatly broaden the range of available control over the wetting behavior of solid surfaces.
As Bubba in Forrest Gump pointed out, there are lots of possibilities with shrimps: "You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it ... there's ah... pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich...that's about it." It sounds pretty much the same when you listen to researchers talking about the numerous strategies for synthesizing nanoparticles - you can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it (well, kind of) ... there's ah... sonochemical processing, cavitation processing, microemulsion processing, and high-energy ball milling. The problem is that, no matter what route you choose, nanoparticle synthesis is normally quite a tricky process that requires a lot of skill and expertise on the part of the chemist to obtain good quality particles of well controlled size and shape. Researchers in the UK tried to see if they could automate the whole procedure by preparing the nanoparticles in automated chemical reactors under the direct control of a computer. If successful, such reactors would find numerous applications in nanoscience and nanotechnology, especially in the areas of photonics, optoelectronics, bio-analysis and targeted drug delivery.
The problem with most current hydrogen sensor designs is that they are built on rigid substrates, which cannot be bent, and therefore, their applications might be limited due to the mechanical rigidity. In addition, they use expensive, pure palladium. A new type of sensors is bendy and use single-walled carbon nanotubes to improve efficiency and reduce cost. In the example of the space shuttle, laminating a dense array of flexible sensors on the whole surface of a pipe can detect any leakage of hydrogen prior to diffusion and alert control units to remedy the malfunction.
Nature is truly a brilliant nano engineer and has been so for billions of years. There is an abundance of 'smart' biological materials with hierarchical nanostructures - built from proteins - that are capable of adapting to new tasks, are self-healing, and can self-assemble autonomously simply out of a solution of building blocks. The performance and capability of these natural materials is something engineers can only dream of today. But by unlocking nature's secrets tiny step by tiny step, one day we will be able to not only duplicate but surpass the performance of natural materials. Only in recent years have scientists begun to understand the underlying principles and mechanisms of these materials - Why is spider silk stronger than steel? Why can cells be stretched reversibly several times of their original length? What kinds of molecular flaws lead to malfunctions in cells and tissues, as it occurs in Alzheimer's, rapid ageing disease progeria or muscle dystrophies, diseases in which the cell or tissue fails mechanically? Scientists at MIT have, for the first time, revealed the fundamental fracture and deformation mechanisms of biological protein materials, clarifying some long-standing issues about the deformation behavior of cells and Alzheimer's pathogens. The researchers report that the fracture mechanisms of two abundant nanoscopic building blocks of many proteins and protein materials exhibit two distinct fracture modes, depending on the speed of deformation. This is a surprising observation with far-reaching implications for the development of novel self-assembled protein materials and possibly the cure of certain genetic diseases
Nanoimprint lithography (NIL) has developed into a key technique for the fabrication of polymer nanopatterns and three-dimensional (3D) nanostructures. At its core, NIL is a simple nanometer scale pattern transfer process where a master mold with a desired pattern is used to fabricate identical patterns in an imprint resist, typically a polymer, with subsequent heat or light curing of the resulting mold. The attractivity of NIL comes from its capability for patterning with high resolution, high fidelity, high throughput, and low cost. Using NIL, nanometer sized patterns can easily be formed on various substrates, including silicon wafers, glass plates, flexible polymer films, and even nonplanar substrates. The limitation of conventional NIL techniques lies in their resulting patterned 2D layers; the formation of 3D micro- and nanostructures by stacking the 2D layers cannot be achieved by conventional NIL. That's why researchers came up with reverse nanoimprint lithography, a technique to transfer patterned 2D layers and to form multistacked 3D micro- and nanostructures on the substrate. While this works in principal, the achievable yields are very low due to the difficulty of detaching the master mold from the 3D structure. Researchers in South Korea have now managed to demonstrate the first successful fabrication of multi-stacked 2D nano patterned slabs on various substrates including flexible polymer film. This means real 3D nano structures such as photonic crystals can be fabricated with reasonable cost.
Individual nanoscale building blocks, such as nanoparticles, nanosheets, nanowires or nanotubes display unique and unusually impressive mechanical properties. These mechanical properties of nanomaterials cannot be extrapolated from their bulk properties and scientists are still busily exploring the nanoscale behavior of various materials. Once the nanoscale properties of a material are known, the next problem is how to practically exploit certain properties and transfer them back into a macro structure of a bulk material. Materials engineers would love to transfer the exceptional mechanical properties such as tensile strength and Young's modulus (a measure of stiffness that reflects the resistance of a material to elongation) of nanoscale materials into nanocomposites that then cold be used to build much tougher, lighter and flexible materials than anything we know today - say a paper thin sheet of nanocomposite material that is transparent, flexible, yet as strong as steel. So far, effective load transfer and homogenous dispersion appear to be the key issues in order to take advantage of the extraordinary properties of nanomaterials for mechanical reinforcement applications. New research coming out of the University of Michigan has resulted in nanocomposite materials with a very high content of inorganic component and nearly perfect stress transfer. The stiffness and tensile strength of these multilayer composites are an order of magnitude greater than those of analogous nanocomposites at a processing temperature that is much lower than those of ceramic or polymer materials with similar characteristics.