Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Nanotechnologists must take lessons from nature

Date:
June 6, 2011
Source:
Vanderbilt University
Summary:
Accepting and understanding natural variability is the key for engineers seeking to make nanoscale devices that are as efficient as living microorganisms.

The simple E. coli bacterium shown can compute 1,000 times faster than the most powerful computer chip, its memory density is 100 million times higher and it needs 100 millionth the power to operate.
Credit: Jenni Ohnstad / Vanderbilt University

It's common knowledge that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but in the nanoscale world, perfection can act as the enemy of the best.

In the workaday world, engineers and scientists go to great lengths to make the devices we use as perfect as possible. When we flip on a light switch or turn the key on the car, we expect the lights to come on and the engine to start every time, with only rare exceptions. They have done so by using a top-down design process combined with the application of large amounts of energy to increase reliability by suppressing natural variability.

However, this brute-force approach will not work in the nanoscale world that scientists are beginning to probe in the search for new electrical and mechanical devices. That is because objects at this scale behave in a fundamentally different fashion than larger-scale objects, argue Peter Cummings, John R. Hall Professor Chemical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, and Michael Simpson, professor of materials science and engineering at University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in an article in the April issue of the ACS Nano journal.

'Noise' makes a difference

The defining difference between the behaviors of large-scale and nanoscale objects is the role that "noise" plays. To scientists noise isn't limited to unpleasant sounds; it is any kind of random disturbance. At the level of atoms and molecules, noise can take the form of random motion, which dominates to such an extent that it is extremely difficult to make reliable devices.

Nature, however, has managed to figure out how to put these fluctuations to work, allowing living organisms to operate reliably and far more efficiently than comparable human-made devices. It has done so by exploiting the contrarian behavior that random behavior allows.

"Contrarian investing is one strategy for winning in the stock market," Cummings said, "but it may also be a fundamental feature of all natural processes and holds the key to many diverse phenomena, including the ability of the human immunodeficiency virus to withstand modern medicines."

In their paper, Cummings and Simpson maintain that in any given population, random fluctuations -- the "noise" -- cause a small minority to act in a fashion contrary to the majority and can help the group respond to changing conditions. In this fashion, less perfection can actually be good for the whole.

Mimicking cells

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where the two researchers work, they are exploring this basic principle through a combination of creating virtual simulations and constructing physical cell mimics, synthetic systems constructed on the biological scale that exhibit some cell-like characteristics.

That is the lesson of nature, where a humble bacterial cell outperforms our best computer chips by a factor of 100 million, and it does this in part by being less than perfect."Instead of trying to make perfect decisions based on imperfect information, the cell plays the odds with an important twist: it hedges its bets. Sure, most of the cells will place bets on the likely winner, but an important few will put their money on the long shot," Simpson said. "That is the lesson of nature, where a humble bacterial cell outperforms our best computer chips by a factor of 100 million, and it does this in part by being less than perfect."

Following the lead of nature means understanding the role of chance. For example, in the AIDS virus, most infected cells are forced to produce new viruses that infect other cells. But a few of the infected cells flip the virus into a dormant state that escapes detection.

"Like ticking bombs, these dormant infections can become active sometime later, and it is these contrarian events that are the main factor preventing the eradication of AIDS," Simpson said.

"Our technology has fought against this chance using a brute force approach that consumes a lot of power," Cummings said. As a result, one of the factors limiting the building of more powerful computers is the grid-busting amount of energy they require.

Yet residing atop the cabinets of these supercomputers, basking in the heat generated in the fight to suppress the element of chance, the lowly bacteria show us another way.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Vanderbilt University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Michael L. Simpson, Peter T. Cummings. Fluctuations and Correlations in Physical and Biological Nanosystems: The Tale Is in the Tails. ACS Nano, 2011; 110401122441089 DOI: 10.1021/nn201011m

Cite This Page:

Vanderbilt University. "Nanotechnologists must take lessons from nature." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 June 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110428132240.htm>.
Vanderbilt University. (2011, June 6). Nanotechnologists must take lessons from nature. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110428132240.htm
Vanderbilt University. "Nanotechnologists must take lessons from nature." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110428132240.htm (accessed September 1, 2014).

Share This




More Matter & Energy News

Monday, September 1, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Australian Airlines Relax Phone Ban Too

Australian Airlines Relax Phone Ban Too

Reuters - Business Video Online (Aug. 26, 2014) Qantas and Virgin say passengers can use their smartphones and tablets throughout flights after a regulator relaxed a ban on electronic devices during take-off and landing. As Hayley Platt reports the move comes as the two domestic rivals are expected to post annual net losses later this week. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Hurricane Marie Brings Big Waves to California Coast

Hurricane Marie Brings Big Waves to California Coast

Reuters - US Online Video (Aug. 26, 2014) Huge waves generated by Hurricane Marie hit the Southern California coast. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Chinese Researchers Might Be Creating Supersonic Submarine

Chinese Researchers Might Be Creating Supersonic Submarine

Newsy (Aug. 26, 2014) Chinese researchers have expanded on Cold War-era tech and are closer to building a submarine that could reach the speed of sound. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Breakingviews: India Coal Strained by Supreme Court Ruling

Breakingviews: India Coal Strained by Supreme Court Ruling

Reuters - Business Video Online (Aug. 26, 2014) An acute coal shortage is likely to be aggravated as India's supreme court declared government coal allocations illegal, says Breakingviews' Peter Thal Larsen. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins