Dynamist Blog

Abalone as Materials Engineers

In the intellectual disputes over nanotechnology, I lean toward the side that says borrowing from biological processes, which have had millions of years to evolve effectively, is more promising than using large-scale mechanical techniques as models. The Red Herring has an intriguing short article on a start-up that is working to apply abalone shell-formation techniques to "to design everything from nanowires to new LCDs." Here are some excerpts:

If the future of technology involves the synergy of silicon chips and biology, then Dr. Angela Belcher has a head start. Her two-year-old startup, Cambrios, leverages the abalone shell formation — which represents millions of years of evolution - to bring a new generation of biological nano-fabrication processes for the electronics industry.

Dr. Belcher has studied the biology of abalones and how the mollusks are able to assemble an extremely hard shell from calcium carbonate and other minerals in an ocean filled with various microbes and contaminants. The result: she and her colleagues have developed proteins that can bind to about 30 different electronic, magnetic, and optical materials, and then assemble the materials into protein structures.

These compounds could help chip engineers build nano-sized materials with extreme precision. And the atom-by-atom self-assembly advantage could help make these chips and optical components competitive with those crafted of silicon, and produce electronics that self-assemble and self-repair when circuits fail....

One of the most promising aspects of Dr. Belcher's discovery is that the process takes place in seawater - not the billion-dollar fabrication plants and hygienic rooms required for silicon manufacturing.

It all starts from the inter-tidal waters, the abalone's home. The abalone's hard shell is formed from ragonite, a natural mineral formation that appears in subterranean caverns. These small formations of hard substance look like tablets of paper and are less than 1 micron tall and several microns wide. The tablets are fused together with protein that acts as glue. To accomplish these bio-material formations, Cambrios uses bacterial phages measuring 6 nanometers in circumference and 880 nanometers in length....

Like biology itself, Cambrios' technology operates at the nanoscale. The company says its assembly of materials can be coded with the same degree of specificity as molecular interactions, meaning that it could radically expand the physical limits of existing manufacturing methods and architectures, while reducing their cost and environmental impact. "The ability to manipulate the genome of viruses gives us a very powerful tool to write the software for bottom-up assembly," says Dr. Leighton Read, a partner with Alloy Ventures, a Cambrios investor. "I don't think the coolness factor is how small you can get, it relates to what you can build and how well you can build it and how well it works."

These excerpts emphasize the science. The full article includes more business information.

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