It's difficult to build ships and buildings in extreme environments such as outer space or the bottom of the ocean. Why not have those structures build themselves, then? A molecular biologist and an architect are now pairing up to create self-assembling structures that use the same principles that drive proteins, viruses and snowflakes to come together in complex shapes, the New York Times' Bits Blog reported.
So far, the pair has made a self-assembling toy and a self-assembling stool, but one of them, at least, is looking to go bigger. The architect, Skylar Tibbits of MIT, told the Bits Blog that he is talking with a company that works in space. Self-assembly would be most useful in those extreme environments where it's difficult to bolt things together, he said.
It's easiest to understand how self-assembling structures work by looking at the toy that Tibbits' collaborator, Arthur Olson of the Scripps Research Institute, originally made. Olson wanted to create a toy that would explain to kids how viruses self-assemble in the body. So he created a toy virus that originally comes broken up in about a dozen irregularly-shaped pieces. Each of the pieces has magnets inside it to replicate the attractive chemical forces that virus pieces have.
Kids put the pieces in a clear jar, then shake the jar. The shaking stands in for energy in the system; in a living body, that energy comes as heat. As the pieces shake, their magnets make them stick to one another and come apart again, over and over, until they finally get shaken into a sturdy conformation that resists falling apart:
Tibbits then worked with Olson to make giant pieces and a giant shaker, for what the Bits Blog called a self-assembling stool.
On a larger scale, this system would not only solve the difficulty of building in tough environments, it would create a structure is able to fix itself when something comes apart, Tibbits said in a TED talk he gave in 2011. In the talk, he envisioned buildings and machines that act like DNA, proteins and other biological molecules.
It's impressive to see the same self-assembly forces at work on something literally a million times larger than a virus. We couldn't help but notice that the stool still had the rough spherical shape of the virus toy, however. It made us wonder how well this will work with more traditionally-shaped chairs, or if people in the future will just have to get used to seeing bumpy spheres in their furniture, spaceships and skyscrapers.