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Today in Nanotech Developments: The Pretty and the Powerful

Brigham Young University pushes the boundaries of carbon nanotube tech and shows how to “grow” complex structures from the stuff. The Navy, meanwhile, is interested in using nanotech robots to produce new nanotech robots.

BYU

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Nanotechnology developments continue apace: Brigham Young University has pushed the envelope of carbon nanotube tech and shown how to “grow” complex structures from the stuff. Meanwhile the Navy is interested in using nanotech robots to “grow” new nanotech robots.

Carbon nanotube logos

A team of physicists at Brigham Young University has developed an innovative new way to grow carbon nanotubes into complex structures that are much more precise than has previously been possible. The technique involves building the pattern for the final nanotube structure onto a flat sheet of iron using carbon “seeds” and then blowing a hot gas mixture over this pre-prepared surface. The nanotubes grow up from the seed pattern, tangling and creating a solid shape. This structure is extremely fragile, and hence the team invented a patented process to coat the nanotubes and create a strong, permanent micro-scale structure that could be used for more practical purposes–like building the tiny actuators and switches that will power micro-scale machines and robots.

How did the team demonstrate the technique? By crafting that astonishing 3-D nanotube sculpture of BYU’s emblem shown up above. Ultimately it may be a useful technique for building complicated micro-scale robots and devices, including microfluidic devices for super-fast, novel medical diagnosis reasons.

Navy’s self-building nanoscale robot swarms

Meanwhile, the Navy is soliciting proposals for a new research project that has a very interesting goal: It’s to “develop a swarm of micro-robotic fabrication machines that will enable the manufacture of new materials and components.” That’s pretty science-fiction-seeming stuff, but there’s more–the swarm “should be able to perform material synthesis and component assembly” including “basic operations such as pick and place, dispense liquids, print inks, remove material, join components.”

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Essentially the Navy is looking for science and engineering tricks that could result in a fleet of microscopic-scale robots that can move around, identify materials, perform tasks, and build structures…which may include micro-scale robots. This sounds a bit like a real-life plan to build what’s known as von Neumann machines, which are self-replicating machines (and which mathematician John von Neumann himself dubbed “universal constructors”) that can manipulate material it finds to build more machines.

We’ve seen other research that shows larger robot swarms collaborating to build structures, but what the Navy’s Office of Naval Research is really looking for is a programmable, dynamic technology that could be “useful for a variety of commercial applications” such as creating “super-strong components, ultra-lightweight materials, composite and hierarchical structures, complex part geometries and/or multifunctional components.”

This looks to be all about future weapons and defensive systems–many, many years in the future.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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