Biomaterials of the Future

Nanofabricated hairs that self-assemble into different structures on command. From Harvard WYSS Institute

Science fiction may be getting closer to reality in the future of materials.

The WYSS Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard is an interdisciplinary “alliance” between the internally diverse schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, as well as a broad array of Universities and Research Centres. Their focus is the development of new materials using the deep, micro scale principles of self assembling natural materials, and the vision of their research is pretty wild.

The deceptively simple mission statement of the WYSS Institute reveals incredible goals:

The Wyss Institute aims to discover the engineering principles that Nature uses to build living things, and harnesses these insights to create biologically inspired materials and devices that will revolutionize healthcare and create a more sustainable world… Understanding of how living systems build, recycle, and control is also guiding efforts focused on development of entirely new approaches for constructing buildings, converting energy, controlling manufacturing, and improving our environment.

The self assembled future

I first heard about the idea of nano robots from William Gibson’s incredible science fiction novels. He envisioned buildings silently self assembling out of landfill. Tiny invisible robots that digested waste into construction materials to be woven together, molecule by molecule, into final structures. The conjured scenario is eery, haunting, and mesmerizing, and like all good science fiction, is actually now a realistic discussion occurring in research labs. It is mind blowing finding researchers trying to unearth the secrets that might transform fantasy to fact.

Here are some sample snippets of research:

Faculty member William Shih and Technology Development Fellow Shawn Douglas, along with a colleague at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen, published a report in Science, on Aug. 7, 2009, demonstrating their ability to engineer DNA into complex shapes that twist and curve.

Wyss Institute researchers are at the forefront of work in DNA Origami, a technique for folding pieces of DNA into shapes that may one day prove useful in manufacturing and medicine. The hope is that these incredibly tiny forms could carry cancer drugs deep inside the body or work as cogs in a molecular machine.

Venus’ flower basket, a deep-sea sponge, is made of natural glass, each strand of which is composed of bundles of threads embedded like reinforced concrete. Each square window measures about 2x2 millimeters. (Joanna Aizenberg)

Wyss Institute scientists are exploring the way in which sponges produce sophisticated glass structures that are illuminated by a crown of optical fibers into which light is concentrated by lenses… The naturally formed glass is thousands of times stronger than its man-made counterpart and is produced at ambient temperatures — without energy-intensive furnaces.

The skeleton of the brittlestar – a cousin of the starfish – literally sees through its bones. The Aizenberg lab is trying to recreate those properties in a bioinspired material. (By Joanna Aizenberg)

What materials do we need?

I couldn’t sleep this morning, having discovered this research institute late last night I had dreams all morning of buildings that breathe, walls that sense and medical products self assembling in my blood stream. It got me thinking, while these visions are wild and fantastical, what might be some of the more practical goals to aim for? High end research always seems to fall into the categories of medical applications and futuristic architecture. But perhaps there are some very simple starting points.

Expanded Polystyrene:

Image from wikipedia, by "Dubaj"

EPS is highly toxic, terrible to recycle or re-use and everywhere. The ubiquitous packaging materials is inside almost every carton transporting fragile goods. Imagine a lightweight, impact resistant, stable material, assembled from basic chemistry, rather than the complex long chain hydrocarbons that make up polystyrene. This material could be biodegradable, feeding into a natural composting processing system, or infinitely renewable if the self assembly properties can be repeated.

Building Insulation:

Image from Ambisol.

The insulation materials used most commonly in architecture are hazardous glass fibres, capable of penetrating the lungs and with extraordinary long life cycles. Alternative solutions are hard to come by due to the never-ending battle against bugs and te build up of mould. The use of natural fibres such as wool are no better; they are treated by increasingly hazardous chemicals to prevent the invasion from nature, making the end result comparatively toxic to the fibreglass. Outlined in the research above is the creation of high technology self assembling fibres, what about some basic fibres to begin with? Perhaps there is a shape that could be formed at nano scales that would deter fungus and critters, voiding the need for chemicals? An enormous market with potential for a huge impact.

It feels odd to be exploring the more pragmatic options, when I am usually falling in love with the grand visions, but perhaps the break through moment for a research institute like WYSS might me something far simpler than originally expected. I’d love to run an ideation session with their research… wouldn’t that be amazing…

One Comment on “Biomaterials of the Future”

  1. […] engineers, partnering with researchers from the Wyss institute (read about them here) have created tiny penny sized robots intended as low cost swarm bots to be sent out and pollinate […]

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