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Research into self-replicating materials/machines

  1. Jan 6, 2015 #1
    Hi. Does anybody know much about the research done on nanorobots? Particularly of the self-replicating kind?

    Are we far away from building these things? Will we at all ever build them, or is it just science fiction?

    Is this a decent area to work/do academics in for a physics grad?
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2015
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  3. Jan 6, 2015 #2


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    What is a nanobot?
  4. Jan 6, 2015 #3
  5. Jan 6, 2015 #4


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    Nanobots are pretty much science fiction*. You will occasionally find a scientist referring to their work as being on nanobots but that's pretty much always for marketing purposes. What they usually are working on instead is a nanoparticle based drug delivery system. If you want to work with nanomedicine then there are plenty of different things you could work on: imaging, biosensors, modelling etc, that's assuming you don't have the inclination or training to go down the chemical and biological route of nanoparticle development. So what kind of skills do you have and what sort of things are you interested in? Or was it just the notion of tiny robots?

    *Though for a real world comparison of tiny machines placed in the body for therapeutic reasons I'd argue that gene-modified T cell therapy ticks most the boxes, and it's damn cool as well.
  6. Jan 6, 2015 #5
    Well the notion of nanobots IS pretty sexy ^^.

    But seriously I think stuff like self-replicating materials and how biological systems copy themselves and so on are pretty cool. Don't really know much about that though, as I am only in my 3rd year of a 5 year education in engineering physics. It's only now I am choosing subjects and thinking on which type of engineering to specialize in. Not sure if going down the route of medicine would be a very good idea, but I would really like to take part in inventing new things.
  7. Jan 6, 2015 #6


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    If you're interested in it I'd suggest looking for lectures on basic cell biology and cell division. There are plenty out there to be found. In terms of your desire to work with self-replicating systems I'm unaware of any specific research but there are a lot of studies trying to develop self-healing materials. Does your course allow you to make much choice on what you study? If so it might be a good idea to look out for any nanoscience courses, of which materials science is certainly a big thing. My undergrad was just straight biology and afterwards I specialised with a masters into nanotechnology and regenerative medicine, perhaps doing a masters is something you might want to keep in mind.

    I've moved this thread to career guidance and changed the name to help you get answers.
  8. Jan 6, 2015 #7
    Thanks. Yeah we have almost full freedom in the 4th year. Right now I have chosen nanoelectronics focused courses for my 4th year: Quantum physics, nanophysics, electron physics, some electrical engineering courses, control engineering and so on.

    Perhaps I change the set-up to a more materials focused path instead? I really don't see myself doing research on nanorobots with the courses I've taken anyway, unless I go for a phD.

    As for biology courses, I think I'll take an intro biology course (focused on cell biology, evolution, DNA) in my 5th year.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2015
  9. Jan 6, 2015 #8


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    That sounds like a good idea, but IMO you should still study the circuit design portion of EE. You probably won't need much E&M past what you get in your physics courses, but the circuit design skills will probably come in handy as you work with robotics and systems.
  10. Jan 6, 2015 #9
    I have already taken two obligatory E&M courses, one obligatory circuit design course and one control systems course, so I know the basics.

    is it a good idea at all for me to go the nanoelectronics path? I really like electrical engineering, but it seems that we physics guys are useful only in materials stuff. In the nanoelectronics field I have the feeling that the electrical engineers are far more competitive. If you get what I mean..
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2015
  11. Jan 6, 2015 #10
    Only things in biology self-replicate. You want to look at biotechnology, synthetic biology and bionanotechnology.

    Physics won't deal with this subject for a long long time. In fact, it is quite possible that once we know how to do this stuff with physics, we already learned so much about biology that we know physics/solid state is inferior to doing it the organic chemistry-way.
  12. Jan 7, 2015 #11
    Wouldn't it be far superior to tailor a self-assembling material to your needs, instead of trying to find an organic material that covers your needs? Or are you saying the "biological way" is already the most efficient? I'm not very educated in this, so i'd appreciate it if you could flesh your post out a bit more
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2015
  13. Jan 7, 2015 #12
    You do tailor it. It is just easier to use biological building blocks than to do de novo organic chemistry.

    There are many issues. Building big proteins you can't do through ochem synthesis. Arranging the protein fibers cannot be done currently. Biology gives tools that can do all these things. One just needs to adapt them to the problem at hand.

    One can just model DNA code in a computer, use a simulation to see how it will turn out, then print the plasmid and put it into the right microorganism. And eventually you can do away with even that organism itself. You will be using machines to build new machines.

    But, by the time this is possible, the lines will have been blurred already anyway. Just my guess.
  14. Jan 7, 2015 #13


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    That's an open debate that can't really be settled right now. Biotechnology and nanotechnology are in many ways in their infancy (to say nothing of the crossover field of bionanotechnology). Almeisan is correct in that there is a lot of research in fields like synthetic biology focusing on high efficient, low waste manufacturing using engineered/synthetic organisms. In terms of material science there are speculations on mass production of bioceramics and bio-textiles, there are also efforts to combine biological synthesis with synthetic materials for things like better electronics.
  15. Jan 8, 2015 #14
    In short, we already have nanobots: they're called biological cells.

    If you find this answer cheap or otherwise unconvincing, I suggest you watch this animation Harvard U made several years ago (below).
    There is some artistic license, yes, but generally, this is actually how cells work and it is incredibly mechanical.
    To be realistic, it's probably far, far beyond what we are going to be able to develop in the next, say, 3-4 decades.

    Moreover, I have my doubts about the human mind being able to engineer such elaborate dynamical systems (like biological cells) -- but hey, we created economies despite not knowing how they work;)

  16. Jan 8, 2015 #15
    There have been microscopic machines that are able to use resources from the environment to duplicate themselves for a very long time. They're called "cells".

    At this stage, most of the serious research into nano-scale machinery is centered around cell biology, because it's easier to study what's already there than to start from scratch. I think we might soon have machinery at that scale (like within 20 years soon, not next month soon), but I don't think it's ever going to be a "grey goo" (again, we already have self-replicating machines and this hasn't happened) scenario or transhumanist paradise where nano-robots make us immortal demigods as some like Ray Kurzweil seem to believe, but I do think they are on the way.

    As for nanotechnology research as a whole, my understanding is that most of it is just a discipline of material science. Nanotech/material science researchers work on stuff like optics, metallurgy, and semiconductors. It's one of the more common places for physics graduates to find themselves if you want to work in industry, also not bad for chemists and mechanical engineers.
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