The UK’s physical sciences research council, the EPSRC, has just issued a call for an “ideas factory” with the theme “Software control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale”, a topic proposed by Nottingham University nanophysicist Philip Moriarty. The way these programs work is that 20-30 participants, selected from many different disciplines, spend a week trying to think through new and innovative approaches to a very challenging problem. At the end of the process, it is hoped that some definite research proposals will emerge, and £1.5 million (i.e. not far short of US$ 3 million) has been set aside to fund these. The challenge, as defined by the call, is as follows:
“Can we design and construct a device or scheme that can arrange atoms or molecules according to an arbitrary, user-defined blueprint? This is at the heart of the idea of the software control of matter – the creation, perhaps, of a “matter compiler” which will interpret software instructions to output a macroscopic product in which every atom is precisely placed. Even partial progress towards this goal would significantly open up the range of available functional materials, permitting meta-materials with interesting electronic, optoelectronic, optical and magnetic properties.
One route to this goal might be to take inspiration from 3-d rapid prototyping devices, and conceive of some kind of pick-and-place mechanism operating at the atomic or molecular level, perhaps based on scanning probe techniques. On the other hand, the field of DNA nanotechnology gives us examples of complex structures built by self- assembly, in which the program to guide the construction is implicit within the structure of the building blocks themselves. This problem, then, goes beyond surface chemistry and the physics of self-assembly to some fundamental questions in computer science.
This ideas factory should attract surface physicists and chemists, including specialists in scanning probe and nanorobotic techniques, and those with an interest in self-assembling systems. Theoretical chemists, developmental biologists, and computer scientists, for example those interested in agent-based and evolutionary computing methods and emergent behaviour, will also be able to contribute. “
I’d encourage anyone who is eligible to receive EPSRC research funding (i.e. scientists working in UK universities and research institutes, broadly speaking) who is interested in taking part in this event to apply using the form on the EPSRC website. One person who won’t be getting any funding from this is me, because I’ve accepted the post of director of the activity.