Recent developments in the field of nanotechnology might give new meaning to the phrase “nothing gold can stay.” Atoms and bonds developed not by Mother Nature, but by scientists, are gaining momentum as the building blocks for cutting-edge materials.
Using nanoparticles as “atoms” and DNA as “bonds,” Chad Mirkin, the director of Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology, is constructing his very own periodic table. So far Mirkin has built more than 200 distinct crystal structures with 17 different particle arrangements.
“We have a new set of building blocks,” Mirkin said. “Instead of taking what nature gives you, we can control every property of the new material we make. We’ve always had this vision of building matter and controlling architecture from the bottom up, and now we’ve shown it can be done.”
In fact, several of the crystal structures that Mirkin has built so far are entirely unique, having no naturally occurring mineral counterpart. He is able to make new materials and arrangements of particles by controlling the size, shape, type, and location of nanoparticles within a given particle lattice. And the design rules that he has developed allow him to control almost every property of the materials that use these structures.
“This constitutes a completely new class of building blocks in materials science that gives you a type of programmability that is extraordinarily versatile and powerful,” Mirkin said. “It provides nanotechnologists for the first time the ability to tailor properties of materials in a highly programmable way from the bottom up.”
Mirkin cites optics, electronics, and energy storage as some of the technologies that can benefit from the use of materials made with these artificial elements. He also notes that some materials made with these nanoparticles have already found commercial uses in biology and medicine, such as diagnostic probes for markers of disease.