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Molecular architects: how scientists design new materials

Molecular architects - 1

Nano-architects design materials that can work together at very tiny scales, like these interlocking gears made of carbon tubes and benzene molecules. NASA

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Molecular architects: how scientists design new materials

When Thomas Edison wanted a filament for his light bulb, he scoured the globe collecting thousands of candidates before settling on bamboo. (It was years before people were able to make tungsten work properly.) That’s our traditional way of getting materials. We picked up stones for axes, chopped wood for housing and carved tools out of bone.

Then we learned to synthesize new materials out of old ones, like shaping clay into bricks or pots and baking them into stone. Plastics entered our repertoire as a concoction of cotton, acid and wood tar.

When Thomas Edison wanted a filament for his light bulb, he scoured the globe collecting thousands of candidates before settling on bamboo. (It was years before people were able to make tungsten work properly.) That’s our traditional way of getting materials. We picked up stones for axes, chopped wood for housing and carved tools out of bone.

Then we learned to synthesize new materials out of old ones, like shaping clay into bricks or pots and baking them into stone. Plastics entered our repertoire as a concoction of cotton, acid and wood tar.

Rothemunde’s smiley face is a likely harbinger of things to come. It is a sort of nano-textile, with a very long DNA strand, folded back and forth so that it covers a circle. Two hundred short strands – “staples” – hold the long strand together. It isn’t just the outline (the long strand with its folds and staples) that is designed in advance. Each DNA strand has its own code, which can be used to control how different DNA strands bond to each other. The codes of the long strand and the staples are computed in advance, and from these designs, strands are synthesized and mixed together to produce the intended structure.

Expanding to more difficult compounds

Meanwhile, chemists and materials scientists are making progress on less controllable materials, like proteins and crystals. For example, a decade ago, Omar Yaghi, Michael O’Keeffe and four colleagues published a manifesto on “reticular synthesis” in nature. They observed that crystals have regular molecular structures, and proposed that chemists should design a structure and then make crystals from the design.

One of the major efforts is making a porous crystal that can serve as a safe and stable storage tank for hydrogen powered cars. (Porous crystals, with nanoscale channels and chambers, are not oddities: you may find some in the catalytic converter in your car or even your cat’s litter box.)

Many of our major technological challenges will require new materials with specific properties, whether for a new drug, a solar panel, a computer chip or airplane skin. When we see progress in medicine, energy, computing power and transportation, the materials revolution is an integral part of the scientific process of discovery.

Author: Gregory McColm – Associate Professor of Mathematics and Statistics, University of South Florida

The article was originally published on The Conversation

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