Organic Computing (Part 2)

7/7/2012 4:33:22 PM

However, the visceral reaction is misleading. The work of these researchers could lead not just to developments such as folding computer screens, but also to compostable foldable computer screens. If the components are organic, then recycling potentially becomes easy.

Description: Organic computing typically involves DNA or other complex chemicals, which process information through a chemical reaction

Organic computing typically involves DNA or other complex chemicals, which process information through a chemical reaction

‘We’ve gone from silicon to plastic and now we’re looking at ingredients that are biodegradable,’ says Mentovich. Plenty of fabs are making noise about going green, he observes, but the focus has been almost exclusively on energy consumed, carbon foot prints and so on. Instead, Mentovich says his team is more ‘looking at ways to consume less toxic chemicals’.

In reality, a totally compostable transistor might be some way off. More immediately, replacing some of the silicon in circuitboards could clean up the fabrication process considerably. In a world with protein-based transistors, no silicon would need to be burned to recover the other precious and semi-precious materials-gold, copper and son on-involved in building circuitboards.

As Mentovich says, the blood, milk and mucus proteins between them provide the basic components of a photo system. ‘It should be possible to make an entire optoelectronic device that’s biodegradable. And a transistor made of proteins also has high mobility, and requires low voltage to operate,’ he adds.

Description: Two polymer molecules linked together will self-assemble into a complex shape

Two polymer molecules linked together will self-assemble into a complex shape

So how is it done? The key is that proteins can self-assemble. Traditional semiconductors are made from the top down – the surface of a silicon crystal is etched with the shapes and forms needed for a particular component. However, the proteins build themselves into semiconductors from the bottom up, which gives them a significant advantage. They can be flexible where silicon is brittle, and they can be made much thinner. Mentovich points to the current state of the silicon art, which he puts at 18nm. A film of self-assembled albumin proteins is just 4nm high.

The proteins the Israeli team uses are commercially available powdered proteins (‘The lazy option,’ Mentovich laughs). To create a semiconductor film, the powder must be suspended in a suitable pH buffer and can then be painted onto any surface. Even onto a blue LED, where the right protein mix will change the light from blue to white.

Other labs are working with proteins in a similar context. Back in 2008, researchers at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, produced chains of semiconducting particles using proteins as growth templates (http://tinyurl.com/GrowthTemplates). In Sweden, researchers have succeeded in producing electrical wires made from proteins (http://tinyurl.com/ProteinWires), while in Russia, photosynthesis proteins have been tapped for their ability to generate photocurrent (http://tinyurl.com/PhotoCurrent).

Mentovich stresses that this work is a long way from a commercial process, but says that most of the obstacles involve complying with industry standards, rather than technology.

We wondered how easy it would be to scale Mentovich and his colleagues work in the lab to an industrial production process. ‘You know how industry standards are,’ he mused. ‘Integration is easy, but compatibility with standards is hard. It would take huge investment – many, many dollars – to take this into industry. But that’s fine for us. We’re having fun finding out what we can do. This isn’t about spitting out a transistor, but we can take a blue LED and coat it with our proteins, and make it a white LED. So perhaps the first step is a hybrid, but really, we want to make everything out of proteins.

Description: Is Google’s Project Glass concept an indication of the future of the human-machine interface?

Is Google’s Project Glass concept an indication of the future of the human-machine interface?

Looking to the future, Mentovich speculates that electronics inside the body would be possible, musing on the possibility of internal devices powered by the human body. ‘There is some difference between electronics (in our computers) and electronics in the human body. One is lonic and the other electronic. Proteins can do both, so may be it can be the bridge? People have shown this effect before but we never thought so far ahead. I think that human-machine interface will be much more vague in the following years. We see it now – look at the new glasses by Google. Can we just modify the eye? Maybe…’

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