Scientists at the University of Virginia Medical School and their collaborators have used DNA to overcome a near-intractable hurdle to engineering materials that would revolutionize electronics.
One possible consequence of such engineered materials could be superconductors, which have zero electrical resistance, allowing electrons to flow unimpeded. This means that it neither loses energy nor generates heat, unlike current means of transmitting electricity. The development of a superconductor that can be widely used at room temperature – rather than extremely high or low temperatures, as is now possible – may lead to superfast computers, shrink the size of electronic devices, allow high-speed trains to float using magnets and reduce energy, Among other benefits.
One such superconductor was first proposed more than 50 years ago by Stanford University physicist William A. Little. Scientists have spent decades trying to make it work, but even after checking the feasibility of his idea, they are left with a challenge that seemed insurmountable. Until now.
Edward H. Eagleman, PhD, of UVA’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, pioneered cryo-EM microscopy (cryo-EM), and Leticia Beltran, a graduate student in his lab, is using cryo-electron imaging for this seemingly impossible project. “It shows that cryo-EM technology has great potential in materials research,” he said.
Engineering at the atomic level
One possible way to realize Little’s idea of a superconductor is to modify networks of carbon nanotubes, hollow cylinders of carbon so tiny that they must measure in nanometers — billionths of a metre. But there was a major challenge: controlling the chemical reactions along the nanotubes so that the network could be assembled precisely as needed and functioned as intended.
Eagleman and his collaborators found an answer in the basic building blocks of life. They took DNA, the genetic material that tells living cells how to function, and used it to direct a chemical reaction that would overcome the large barrier to Tel’s superconductor. In short, they have used chemistry to perform astonishingly precise structural engineering – based on the level of individual molecules. The result was a network of carbon nanotubes assembled as needed for Little’s room-temperature superconductor.
“This work demonstrates that the required modification in carbon nanotubes can be achieved by taking advantage of the DNA sequence control over the spacing between adjacent interaction sites,” Eagleman said.
The researchers say the network they built has yet to be tested for superconductivity, for now, but it offers proof of principle and has great potential for the future. One of the highest honors a scientist can receive, said Eagleman, whose previous work led to his induction into the National Academy of Sciences.
Eagleman and colleagues say their DNA-guided approach to network building could have a variety of useful research applications, particularly in physics. But it also confirms that Little’s room-temperature superconductor can be built. The scientists’ work, combined with other breakthroughs in superconductors in recent years, could eventually transform technology as we know it and lead to a much more “Star Trek” future.
“While we often think of biology using tools and techniques from physics, our work shows that methods being developed in biology can actually be applied to problems in physics and engineering,” Eagleman said. “This is the exciting thing about science: the unpredictability of where our work will lead us.”
The researchers published their findings in the journal Sciences.
A window on the atomic scale in superconductivity paves the way for new quantum materials
Zhiwei Lin et al, DNA-guided retinal remodeling of carbon nanotubes, Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1126 / science.abo4628
Presented by the University of Virginia
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