This is certainly the week for some very high octane speculation, as this article shared by Mr. P.J. and several others demonstrates:
They're calling this technique "implosion fabrication", and the idea behind it is relatively simple: first design the nano-scale object you want, then simply "shrink" or implode it to nano-fractions of its original size:
Existing techniques for creating nanostructures are limited in what they can accomplish. Etching patterns onto a surface with light can produce 2-D nanostructures but doesn’t work for 3-D structures. It is possible to make 3-D nanostructures by gradually adding layers on top of each other, but this process is slow and challenging. And, while methods exist that can directly 3-D print nanoscale objects, they are restricted to specialized materials like polymers and plastics, which lack the functional properties necessary for many applications. Furthermore, they can only generate self-supporting structures. (The technique can yield a solid pyramid, for example, but not a linked chain or a hollow sphere.)
To overcome these limitations, Boyden and his students decided to adapt a technique that his lab developed a few years ago for high-resolution imaging of brain tissue. This technique, known as expansion microscopy, involves embedding tissue into a hydrogel and then expanding it, allowing for high resolution imaging with a regular microscope. Hundreds of research groups in biology and medicine are now using expansion microscopy, since it enables 3-D visualization of cells and tissues with ordinary hardware.
By reversing this process, the researchers found that they could create large-scale objects embedded in expanded hydrogels and then shrink them to the nanoscale, an approach that they call “implosion fabrication.”
“It’s a bit like film photography — a latent image is formed by exposing a sensitive material in a gel to light. Then, you can develop that latent image into a real image by attaching another material, silver, afterwards. In this way implosion fabrication can create all sorts of structures, including gradients, unconnected structures, and multimaterial patterns,” Oran says.
Once the desired molecules are attached in the right locations, the researchers shrink the entire structure by adding an acid. The acid blocks the negative charges in the polyacrylate gel so that they no longer repel each other, causing the gel to contract. Using this technique, the researchers can shrink the objects 10-fold in each dimension (for an overall 1,000-fold reduction in volume). This ability to shrink not only allows for increased resolution, but also makes it possible to assemble materials in a low-density scaffold. This enables easy access for modification, and later the material becomes a dense solid when it is shrunk.
The MIT team is now exploring potential applications for this technology, and they anticipate that some of the earliest applications might be in optics — for example, making specialized lenses that could be used to study the fundamental properties of light. This technique might also allow for the fabrication of smaller, better lenses for applications such as cell phone cameras, microscopes, or endoscopes, the researchers say. Farther in the future, the researchers say that this approach could be used to build nanoscale electronics or robots. (Emphasis added)
As one might imagine, it's that "father in the future" aspect that has my high octane speculation motor working in overdrive. But before we get to that, it's important to note what's really being claimed here, to "boil it down" and to generalize it a bit, hopefully, without introducing inaccuracy or distortions thereby: (1) an object is embedded in a medium or matrix, (2) it is scanned and "built" at large scale, then (3) it is actually shrunk (according to the claim, an order of magnitude in each of the three dimensions, yielding a thousandfold reduction in volume) by introducing a new material into the medium or matrix which causes the shrinkage to take place.
On the basis of these claims, the scientists themselves who accomplished this feat indulge in a bit of high octane speculation of their own: "Farther in the future, the researchers say that this approach could be used to build nanoscale electronics or robots."
Which brings me to my high octane speculation of the day: I'm old enough to remember a movie that appeared in 1966, that captured my imagination, called Fantastic Voyage, about a dying American "genius scientist" who was so valuable to whatever secret research he was involved in that he simply had to be saved, no matter what. The "no matter what" involved shrinking a human submarine (and crew) down to molecule size and injecting it (and them) into the scientist's body so that they could literally do surgery "from within". Once done, they would be extracted and returned to normal size. The movie was "updated" a bit, and made into a more humorous approach with the 1987 Dennis Quaid and well-known character actor Kevin McCarthy movie Innerspace, where the shrinking process is used to created some humorous moments in an otherwise serious plot.
So in other words, the next step in the technology tree from shrinking simple objects, then to electronics, then robots, is actual people. Think, for a moment, of the advantages such a technique would have for a variety of things, from space travel, to espionage, to infiltration, to surgery (like the original Fantastic Voyage movie). It's that chain of succession, from electronics to robots to humans which makes me wonder if, indeed, the researchers who achieved this feat were not thinking of the same thing, merely leaving it unstated. And it makes me wonder if, in fact, those 1966 and 1987 movies may have been letting a few secrets out of the bottle, so to speak, if perhaps all that money sloshing around in that "breakaway civilization" might not have already achieved some significant breakthrough in this respect, and if this latest announcement might be, not a discovery, but a disclosure masked as a discovery.
See you on the flip side...