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Colloquium | Nanoscience and Technology Division

Atomic Origami: A Technology Platform for Nanoscale Machines, Sensors, and Robots

NST Colloquium

Abstract: What would we be able to do if we could build cell-scale machines that sense, interact, and control their micro-environment? Can we develop a Moore’s law for machines and robots?

In Richard Feynman’s classic talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” he foretold of the coming revolution in the miniaturization of electronics components. This vision is largely being achieved and pushed to its ultimate limit as Moore’s Law comes to an end. In the same lecture, Feynman also points to the possibilities that would be opened by the miniaturization of machines. This vision, while far from being realized, is equally tantalizing. For example, even achieving miniaturization to micron length scales would open the door to machines that can interface with biological organisms through biochemical interactions, as well as machines that self-organize into superstructures with mechanical, optical, and wetting properties that can be altered in real time. If these machines can be interfaced with electronics, then at the tens of microns scale alone, semiconductor devices would be small enough that we could put the computational power of the spaceship Voyager into a machine that could be injected into the body. Such robots could have onboard detectors, power sources, and processors that enable them to make decisions based on their local environment, allowing them to be completely untethered from the outside world.

In this talk, I will describe the work our collaboration is doing to develop a new platform for the construction of micron-sized origami machines that change shape in fractions of a second in response to environmental stimuli. The enabling technologies behind our machines are graphene-glass and graphene-platinum bimorphs. These ultrathin bimorphs bend to micron radii of curvature in response to small strain differentials. By patterning thick rigid panels on top of bimorphs, we localize bending to the unpatterned regions to produce folds. Using panels and bimorphs, we can scale down existing origami patterns to produce a wide range of machines. These machines can sense their environments, respond, and perform useful functions on time and length scales comparable with those of microscale biological organisms. With the incorporation of electronic, photonic, and chemical payloads, these basic elements will become a powerful platform for robotics at the micron scale. I will close by offering a few forward-looking proposals for using these machines as basic programmable elements for the assembly of multifunctional materials and surfaces with tunable mechanical, optical, and hydrophilic properties.