Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Brief items

Some interesting items of note:

  • Gil Refael at Cal Tech has a discussion going on the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter blog about the content of "modern physics" undergraduate courses.  The dilemma as usual is how to get exciting, genuinely modern physics developments into an already-packed undergrad curriculum.  
  • The variety and quality of 3d printed materials continues to grow and impress.  Last month a team of folks from Karlsruhe demonstrated very nice printing of (after some processing) fused silica.  Then last week I ran across this little toy.  I want one.  (Actually, I want to know how much they cost without getting on their sales engineer call list.)  We very recently acquired one of these at Rice for our shared equipment facility, thanks to generous support of the NSF MRI program.   There are reasons to be skeptical that additive manufacturing will scale in such a way as to have enormous impact, but it sure is cool and making impressive progress.
  • There is a news release about our latest paper that has been picked up by a few places, including the NSF's electronic newsletter.  I'll write more about that very soon.
  • The NSF and the SRC are having a joint program in "SemiSynBio", trying to work at the interface of semiconductor devices and synthetic biology to do information processing and storage.  That's some far out stuff for the SRC - they're usually pretty conservative.
  • Don Lincoln has won the AIP's 2017 Gemant Award for his work presenting science to the public - congratulations!  You have likely seen his videos put out by Fermilab - they're frequently featured on ZapperZ's blog

5 comments:

Tahir said...

Hello,

I am a postdoc in theoretical biophysics / synthetic biology, and started out in hard condensed matter physics. I was wondering what your opinion is on the interface between synthetic biology and semiconductor nanostructure engineering. Clearly its a blue-skies, high-risk / high-reward direction, and no one can know for sure which of those will lead to the big payoff. But at the same time, based on your blog, I feel that your opinions and intuitions would have, shall we say, a `better than average' chance of being correct. So, as an expert in nanostructured semiconductor physics, what do you think - would you invest in it?

Douglas Natelson said...

Tahir, thanks for your comment. Generically, I think it's definitely an area worth some level of investment - the potential for diagnostics and clinical applications is enormous. On the actual computational side (e.g., growing biological components for use in information processing and storage for non-medical applications) I think it's an extremely long shot. Biological components require liquid media with carefully controlled concentrations of various solutes, narrowly defined temperatures, etc. it's hard for me to see the SRC world willing to deal with that. Still, getting a better understanding of how to interface semiconductor devices technologies with living matter is exciting and very challenging.

Tahir said...

Hello,

Thank you for your response. I definitely agree that it is a long shot, at least at this moment, to actually use living matter as components for semiconductor device technology.

But I also want to ask about another area - namely, using biological systems to synthesize and control the structure and composition of nanostructures. In particular, as I understand it, one of the greatest challenges in creating high-quality materials is safeguarding against the effects of unwanted disorder. Do you think biogenic synthesis routes could,potentially, come to compete with the best current fabrication methods?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the comment about additive manufacturing scaling. A very large fraction of metallic components are for structural (i.e. load bearing) applications. While it is great that these guys have improved near-net-shape tolerances and cost, the big problem for many applications is that the microstructure of the additive manufactured components is horrible from the perspective of strength in various types of loading conditions. Unless they do something about that, they will make no dent in serious application areas like aerospace.

Douglas Natelson said...

Tahir, interesting question, and I'll give a bit of a nuanced answer. (I say a little more about this in sections 11.2.3 and 11.2.4 of my textbook, but not much more.) In terms of growth of, e.g., semiconductor material of sufficiently high purity to be useful for modern electronics, I think biological synthesis is not going to get there. Biological systems can manipulate inorganic material in complex and finely structured ways (growth of abalone shell; nanoscale magnetite crystals in magnetotactic bacteria), and while we know enough biology and surface physics/chemistry to manipulate some of these processes (for example, see work by Belcher at MIT, Aizenberg at Harvard). However, for electronic functionality as in computing, material purity and control requirements are very strict, and it doesn't look likely that biological systems can get there. Now, other applications can be less picky about purity (e.g., battery electrodes, supported catalysts), so there may be possibilities there. In terms of nanostructuring, DNA origami is pretty amazing, but it's still not clear how well that kind of exquisite control can then be transferred to other materials besides the DNA itself and maybe metal nanoparticles linked to it.

Anon, yep. Here is an interesting slide deck along those lines: https://www.nist.gov/sites/default/files/documents/2017/04/28/Slotwinski-NIST-AM-Materials.pdf. Paging through there you can really see the kinds of problems that crop up....