Mar 18 2012

“Welstone” Leads To Programmable Matter


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.