Edinburgh, Scotland, June 25th, 2012—Skylar Tibbits, Arthur Olson and Autodesk Research have exhibited the BioMolecular Self-Assembly project at the 2012 TEDGlobal Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Participants at TEDGlobal each received a unique glass flask containing anywhere from 4 to 12 red, black or white parts. When the glass flask is shaken randomly the independent parts find each other and self-assemble various molecular structures. The flasks contain a custom tag that identifies the type of molecular structure and the ingredients for successful self-assembly.
Self-assembly is the process by which a system spontaneously assembles from discrete components without external guidance. For a successful self-assembly to take place, three things are required: geometry, energy, and attraction—all of which, in theory, can occur at many different scales.
The geometry of the units ensures successful self-assembly of the structure, with incorrect connections failing due to weak interactions. What results is a structure that is the most stable of many possible configurations. Each unit has patterns of elements that attract through positive and negative interactions which provide auto-alignment. The more correct interactions that are made, the stronger the structure becomes. Partially assembled pieces that don’t fit together will fall apart and reassemble differently, providing error correction. Shake too vigorously and energy is too great, causing interacting subunits to fall apart. Shake too lightly and the energy is too small to allow the pieces to interact properly. In between lies the proper amount of energy to enable interactions to be made and to form a complete assembly.
The underlying mechanisms that promote self-assembly in nature inform our understanding of everything from thermodynamics to evolution. We are now close to using programmable self-assembly at the molecular level for tasks such as drug delivery. But could buildings one day build themselves? It sounds unbelievable, but it’s the very real world of Skylar Tibbits of MIT and Arthur Olson of the Scripps Research Institute, who study how the basic ingredients for molecular assembly could translate to self-assembly technologies at all scales, from Nano to buildings and space scale applications.
Programmable self-assembly has been studied extensively at the molecular level for some time now. However, the first large-scale applications will likely take shape in extreme environments of near-zero gravity or neutral buoyancy, where the application of energy can lead to increases in interaction. Imagine using wave energy underwater to trigger the self-assembly of multistory structures, or parts dropped from high altitudes to unfold fully erected structures, or even modular, transformable and reconfigurable space structures!
Arthur Olson, The Molecular Graphics Laboratory, The Scripps Institute, CA.
Matt Tierney & Carlos Olguin, Autodesk Inc.
A special thanks to everyone at TED Conferences for their tremendous support and the ever-inspiring venue. A sincere thank you to Adam Bly and SEED Media Group for their support on The Self-Assembly Line at TED Long Beach 2012. Without the initial project and research the BioMolecular Self-Assembly project would not have been possible.