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Mar 18 2012

“Welstone” Leads To Programmable Matter

By Valkyrie Ice


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Imagine, if you will, a lump of clay sitting in your hand. It looks just like any other lump of clay, but this one is very different. With a thought, you can command it to become anything. And I do mean anything. You can make it become a solid lump of diamond, or coal, even a mushroom, as well as a fairy to dance on it. With a wave of your mind, it could be a toy robot, or a stuffed animal, or even an iPhone. It could be a sheet of paper, or an elegant ball gown, or a basketball. It wouldn’t matter what object you wanted it to be, it could shift and change, becoming exactly what you desire.

Sounds pretty unbelievable, no? Kind of like a magical gizmo instead of anything technological, no? And yet this “clay” is neither magic, nor impossible, but is an idea conceived by Wil McCarthy, a physicist and author. He called this fantastic device “Welstone.” In his book Hacking Matter, McCarthy discusses a unique quirk of nature – the fact that when properly set up, a quantum well device is capable of being used to create an artificial “atom” composed entirely of electrons. Unlike a normal atom, this artificially created atom is nucleus free, composed only of the “shells” of spinning electrons, but interacts nearly identically to a normal atom. “Welstone” is a concept McCarthy developed that proposes using this ability to create artificial atoms via a nanodevice whose surface is composed entirely of quantum wells – thus “wel”stone – to enable us to create “programmable matter,” that lump of “clay” I discussed above.

Until now, this concept has been little more than science fiction. But that is beginning to change. In a recent press release, The DoE’s SLAC laboratory discusses how they have managed to create what appears to be a precursor to Welstone. This “Molecular Carbon” has enabled researchers to perform a variety of experiments in which the properties of graphene are duplicated by using electrons to create “virtual graphene” which can be manipulated in ways that cannot be done with real graphene.

“To make the structure, which Manoharan calls molecular graphene, the scientists use a scanning tunneling microscope to place individual carbon monoxide molecules on a perfectly smooth copper surface. The carbon monoxide repels the free-flowing electrons on the copper surface and forces them into a honeycomb pattern, where they behave like graphene electrons.

To tune the electrons’ properties, the researchers repositioned the carbon monoxide molecules on the surface; this changed the symmetry of the electron flow. In some configurations, electrons acted as if they had been exposed to a magnetic or electric field. In others, researchers were able to finely tune the density of electrons on the surface by introducing defects or impurities. By writing complex patterns that mimicked changes in carbon-carbon bond lengths and strengths in graphene, the researchers were able to restore the electrons’ mass in small, selected areas.”

By using the ability to create “virtual carbon atoms” composed only of electrons, the researchers can much more freely play with the properties of graphene, and study how it reacts under conditions ranging from high bond stress to levels of magnetic fields even beyond those currently achievable by even the strongest of our current magnets — all this despite the fact that those magnetic fields don’t actually exist. (For further information I recommend Next Big Future’s follow up with links to the researcher’s publications.)

While this is just a beginning, it should be obvious how the ability to create virtual graphene can be extended to the creation of other virtual atomic structures, and even eventually to the ability to use the knowledge gained from such manipulation of electrons to make devices able to create any arbitrary virtual atom, even those in the “superheavy” ranges. It should also be obvious how it could also lead to the eventual ability to use “virtual atoms” to manipulate real atoms to create engineered atomic structures and enable the creation of nanofactories. While such developments are indeed still many years off, it does look like Wil McCarthy’s “Welstone” just took a step out of the pages of sci-fi and into reality.

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  • By Dave Powell, March 19, 2012 @ 6:26 am

    “It is now possible, then, for scientists to create entirely new materials or tweak existing materials — like silicon or copper, or another important element — to make them stronger or more conductive. Where will this particular avenue lead us?”

    Nowhere, unless you only want blocks of it 1 or 2 nanometers across, and are prepared to take a few hours to manufacture it.
    In this case, a scanning tunnelling microscope is being used by having a single massive (on an atomic scale) probe manipulating single atoms at a time. Until we can control millions of atoms at this degree of resolution AND at the same time (smaller parallel probes, or some fancy trick with complex electrical fields on a single probe tip), this is scientifically interesting, but useless for the bulk manufacture the poster hints at.

    No, it’s not alchemy.

    It’s just a slight riff on things we’ve been doing for a long time. Placing atoms or molecules in layers or patterns so that their associated electrons have certain characteristics.

    We’ve been doing patterning of atoms/molucules with STMs for decades now.

    It’s interesting work, but the description seems awfully breathless.

    “Meddling with the very fabric of reality”?

    Gimme a break. *eye-roll*

    Indeed. The article appears to have been written by a wide-eyed journalist with a poor grasp of basic physics and chemistry. The authors confusion between electrons and atoms is clear from the text.

    One slightly mitigating factor is the nature of the research, which appears to use physical arrangements of atoms to induce new types of electro-chemical bonding. The research appears to cajole electrons into various chemical bond arrangements by moving C-O molecules into patterns upon a copper grid. It appears that the atoms are being directly controlled, not the electrons.

    From what I can guess from the ravings in the article, the electrons probably just hop in or out of the valence band of the copper to facilitate the formation of these giant “oxy-carbon” molecules. I assume a sufficiently literate chemistry geek would actually be able to put a name on the molecules being formed, similar to those on hydrocarbon molecules.

  • By Valkyrie Ice, March 19, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    Humm. Might I suggest you read Wil MacCarthy’s book, linked above in the PDF. All I’ve done is point out that this is a step towards what he is discussing.

  • By Angelica, April 11, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    Virginia,Back in the earlier 70 s I wokred on drag lines in the coal mines that used carbon disc stacks and with a screw attachment too compress the pile and thereby regulate the output voltage which we used too control the speed and torque of D.C. motors. we had stacks of spare disc to use for replacement for broken ones and also at times you would want too add or remove disc too calibrate your circuit when you changed out a motor or a generator in your loop.

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