These days we are overwhelmed with clever technology. From the wonders of the iPad to the practicality of satellite navigation. There are few areas of our lives that are not enhanced by technology, so it is hard to imagine how it could develop further. But, surprisingly, the answer may be in nature – in bacteria, to be precise.
A research group at Leeds University have been working with magnet-making bacteria and their findings may provide a step towards producing more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly electronics in the future.
In nature, these bacteria have been observed to ‘eat’ iron to create a surface of magnets, similar to those found in computer hard drives. “No one really knows why they make them, but it seems to help them line up along the magnetic field allowing them to find their ‘happy place’, where they can can access food and oxygen,” explains doctoral student, Joanna Galloway, lead author of the study.
The bacteria used in this research were identified originally in 1975, however this is the first time they’ve been successfully grown in the lab. “They live in really niche, narrow environments so they’re quite difficult to actually grow in a lab and study properly,” says Galloway.
The team have been working on a ‘bottom-up’ approach to create these environmentally-friendly computers. This is where components are left to assemble themselves into a pattern, compared to the ‘top-down’ approach of technology production where desired patterns are etched out from a surface. The benefits are cost friendly too. “Rather than having to use expensive equipment each time, if you maintain the right conditions you can get the materials to assemble themselves. Also, the technique doesn’t require horrible chemicals or high temperatures so its very cost effective,” explains Galloway.
Currently the researchers are working with temperatures of 80ºC to develop these magnetic particles but now they are working on testing their effectiveness at room temperature. They will also be trying out different magnetic proteins to assess their ability to store and retain information like a computer.
Despite this research being in its early stages, it is possible that we could witness the beginnings of a biological computer in most of our lifetimes, “in 15 years time, you wouldn’t have a whole bacterial computer but prototype components for it could possibly be templated using this process.”
I wonder if Apple will catch on to this...ePad anyone?!