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Richard Jones

Soft Machines: What Nanotechnology Can Learn From Biology

Richard Jones

Dept of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield, UK

We can now manipulate matter at the level of individual atoms and molecules, and we are beginning to see some of the results of this nanotechnology in the form of useful products. But the most sophisticated results of nanotechnology - working machines, devices and systems made on the molecular scale - have yet to be constructed. If such machines can be made, they will undoubtedly make possible great advances in medicine, energy and information technology, but what kind of engineering principles will they be based on? Our natural tendency is to assume that nanoscale machines will operate on the same principles as human-scale engineering, but physics looks different on the nanoscale in ways that will make this approach very difficult. The most sophisticated nanoscale machines and devices we know about now are the sub-cellular machines, made of natural polymers such as proteins and nucleic acids, which underpin all the functions of living things, including energy conversion and information processing. This natural nanotechnology is based on quite different design principles to the principles we learn in macroscopic engineering. The components of the machines are soft and floppy, and the way they works relies on features of the physics of the nanoscale - like Brownian motion and strong surface forces - which have no analogue at the macroscale. It follows that, in designing synthetic nanoscale machines to handle energy and process information, we should learn from the way nature exploits the special physics of the nanoscale, using design principles such as self-assembly and macromolecular conformational change. In our laboratory we are attempting to use design principles analogous to those used by biology (albeit in a very crude way) to make synthetic systems capable of converting chemical energy directly to mechanical energy, and to make nanoscale particles capable of autonomous motion.


Richard Jones is Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield. His first degree and PhD in Physics both come from Cambridge University, and following postdoctoral work at Cornell University, U.S.A., he was a lecturer at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. In 1998 he moved to the University of Sheffield, and in 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is an experimental polymer physicist who specialises in elucidating the nanoscale structure and properties of polymers and biological macromolecules at interfaces. In his current research, he aims to understand how to exploit the self-assembling properties of polymers to make cheap and efficient plastic electronic devices, and how to use shape change in macromolecules to create entirely synthetic molecular motors, valves and other components of a polymer-based soft nanotechnology.

Richard Jones was the co-author of a report published by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council, The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology (2003). He chaired the Nanotechnology Engagement Group, a body set up by UK Government to support the development of best practice in public engagement around nanotechnologies, and to ensure that public engagement feeds into policy and decision-making, and is the Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the lead government funding body for nanotechnology in the UK.

He is the author of more than 110 research papers, and three books, the most recent of which is Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life, published by Oxford University Press in 2004.

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