The key to nanotechnology may not be making tiny structures out of individual molecules. It may be forcing those structures to build themselves. And scientists appear to have found a way to make that happen.
When different substances come into contact with each other, they have widely differing reactions. Some steam and fizz, some cool, and some spontaneously arrange themselves into orderly structures. The last reaction is hard to come by, and takes just the right materials, but has the potential to be very useful. Imagine if technology no longer had to be a fragile, delicately arranged solid structure, like the computer you're reading this on. Instead, it could be a gooey mass of elements that you could feel free to shake, heat up, and pound on — because only when you're using it does it assemble itself into the structures you need.
Scientists have found materials that spontaneously build up structures under the right set of circumstances, but those structures have so far only been two dimensional. That changed when scientist began mixing tetracarboxylic acid molecules with buckyballs. A famous physics structure, buckyballs are also known as Fullerene or carbon-60. Sixty carbon atoms group together to form a regularly-patterned, hollow sphere like a soccer ball.
When the scientists dipped their buckyballs in the acid, the acid molecules were attracted to the sphere. Because buckyballs are three dimensional objects, the acid molecules formed a 3D structure around the sphere. They did so on contact, perfectly spontaneously. Scientists had made a structure that assembled itself. Neil Champness, one of the learders of the team of scientists, explains why this is so exciting:
Our work opens up the possibility of preparing increasingly complex molecular arrangements, whose organization can be controlled. It is the molecular equivalent of throwing a pile of bricks up into the air and then as they come down again they spontaneously build a house.
What's more, the house can 'unbuild' itself. Adding a planar molecule to the complex structure of the encrusted buckyballs knocks away the acid molecules and disassembles the entire production. This is a complex structure built via a simple on-off switch - the addition of the planar molecule. Being able to switch such complex structures on and off means that one day there could be molecular computers, or assembling and disassembling in-body medical equipment. Who knows? One day you could carry your computer around in a water bottle. Just not onto an airplane.
Via Physics World.