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Innovation

Nanobiotechnology reshaping the future

Access to nature's tens of thousands of building blocks turning the impossible into the possible - By Carlo Montemagno, Director, Ingenuity Lab University of Alberta

Edmonton - For more than two million years, mankind has shaped its world through the creative manipulation of a small number of fundamental machines. Throughout the agricultural and mechanical ages, from the printing press to the first airplanes, all were crafted from the six fundamental machines of physics - the screw, the wheel and axle, the incline plane, the lever, the pulley, and the wedge.

The electronic age was established through the addition of five fundamental machines to the modern toolbox: the diode, the transistor, the inductor, the resistor, and the capacitor.

It's hard to believe, but our entire civilization is founded on the creative exploitation of the properties of just these 11 different building blocks. Everything, from smartphones to electric cars to global positioning satellites, is produced from a small number of distinct, functional pieces.

Yet our technological achievements pale in comparison to the complexity of the biological achievements found in nature.

Nature is so complex because it has tens of thousands of building blocks to work with, instead of the 11 used by man. Think of the extraordinary innovations humans could engineer if we had access to nature's incredible selection of tools.

Because of the many strides taken while researching nature's inner workings at the most minute levels, University of Alberta-based Ingenuity Lab is now on the cusp of seeing some major scientific advances in technologies that will help to both improve the quality of life for many people and create economic benefits.

By using nature's building blocks to manipulate matter a single molecule at a time, Ingenuity Lab is making the impossible possible.

Nature has the ability to actively select, sort and transport molecules and to facilitate the exchange of information, thus enabling communication between them. While there are challenges to working at this atomic level, Ingenuity Lab has been able to capitalize on these molecular interactions found in living systems to yield technologies that will help solve many of society's challenges.

For example, recent advances have enabled us to use nature's fundamental machinery in engineered systems to establish a whole new class of valuable materials by transforming CO2 emissions. In fact, this technology has the potential to transform CO2 waste into more than 40 different valuable drop-in chemicals. We're confident this new technology is poised to become a scalable and sustainable weapon to address climate change, all while turning waste into something valuable.

In recent years, much has been written about 3D printing technology, which is essentially a process that builds layers to create a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model.3D printing has the potential to significantly transform the global economy by advancing the value of information, reducing capital infrastructure and product and material transportation costs and accelerating the evolution of products.

3D printing - also known as additive manufacturing - relies on the use of specialty - let's call them - 'inks' such as plastic, ceramics and metals that solidify into a defined structure. The most common 3D printers use a single material 'ink', most often a plastic, to manufacture the final product. This process allows us to make more complex products that are light and strong, and minimize the use of material, enabling the production of items as varied as antennas in plastic cell phone cases, to high-temperature-, high-load-tolerant jet engine parts.

But advances at Ingenuity Lab are allowing for the transition of additive manufacturing from 3D to a four-dimensional, functional space (4D printing), which will allow devices to actively interact and transform their local environments in many of the same ways living systems do.

This next wave of technological progress will enable the creation of materials and devices that transform energy and collect, process and act on information, which will provide many new avenues to address global challenges with solutions that can improve both our quality of life and prosperity.

Up to now, we have built our man-made world from a few simple 'machines but with nanobiotechnology we will be able to reshape nature.

Dr. Carlo Montemagno is Director of Ingenuity Lab at the University of Alberta. A longer version of this column was first printed in The New Economy.


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