Nanotech and biological hybrid could speed computers

Scientists at national lab combine lipids with nanowires to boost electronics

Researchers are working on integrating nanotechnology with biological materials to create more powerful computers, medical tools and even prosthetics.

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced this week that they have built a hybrid platform out of a mixture of biological and manmade materials. The platform is enabling them to build prototypes of what they're calling bio-nanoelectronic devices.

"Electronic circuits that use these complex biological components could become much more efficient," said Aleksandr Noy, a lead scientist on the project, in a statement.

The platform, according to the laboratory, is based on nanowires that are coated in lipids, which are essential structural components of living cells. By combining the nanowires with the lipids, the resulting platform becomes more complex, which enables the hybrid material to convert signals much faster than today's most powerful computers.

Various scientific teams are working to combine computer and electronic technology with biological materials.

This past spring, MIT researchers announced they had combined nanotechnology with genetically engineered viruses to build batteries that could power hybrid cars and cell phones.

The viruses, which infect bacteria but are harmless to humans, build the positively and negatively charged ends of lithium-ion batteries. The batteries, according to MIT, have the same energy capacity and power performance as state-of-the-art rechargeable batteries that are being considered to power plug-in hybrid cars and personal electronic devices.

Late in 2007, a scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson successfully connected a moth's brain to electronics, using it to guide a 12-inch-tall robot on wheels. Associate professor Charles Higgins predicted at the time that "hybrid" computers running a combination of technology and living organic tissue will be available in 10 to 15 years.

Then in January 2008, scientists in the U.S. and Japan announced that they had successfully used a monkey's brain activity to control a humanoid robot. The research may only be a few years away from helping paralyzed people walk again by enabling them to use their thoughts to control exoskeletons attached to their bodies, Miguel Nicolelis, a lead researcher on the project, said at the time.

And about a year ago, Justin Rattner, CTO and a senior fellow at Intel Corp., told Computerworld that perhaps as early as 2012 the lines between human and machine intelligence would begin to blur.

Rattner also said that by 2050 or so, computing will be less about launching applications and more about living with computers woven into most daily activities.

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