Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, along with their associates, have used DNA in order to overcome challenging obstacles when engineering materials that would result in modernizing electronics.
A likely result of such engineered materials may be superconductors, which allow electrons to flow without any obstacle, as they have zero electrical resistance. This eventually means that unlike existing methods of electrical transmission, they don’t create heat or lose energy. Developing a semiconductor that can be used at room temperature instead of extremely low or high temperatures is now possible. This might lead to shrinking sizes of electronic devices, or allow high-speed trains to float on magnets, and even lower the use of energy, among other advantages.
William A. Little, a physicist at Stanford University, proposed one such superconductor for the first time over 50 years ago. Scientists have worked for decades in aiming to make the superconductor work, but they failed even after validating the possibility of his idea, as the challenge still remained impossible to overcome, until now.
Edward H. Egelman, a Ph.D. candidate at UVA’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, has been a leader in the domain of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). He along with Leticia Beltran, a graduate student in his lab, used cryo-EM imaging for this project, a feat that once appeared impossible to execute. He said that this technique had presented great potential in the research of materials, as demonstrated.
A possible way to understand Little’s idea related to a superconductor, was to revise the lattices of carbon nanotubes and hollow carbon cylinders, which are so tiny in size, that they need to be measured in nanometers, which is equal to one-billionth of a meter. However, a major challenge was to control the chemical reactions along with the nanotubes, so that as a result, the lattice could be accumulated exactly as required, and function as planned.
Egelman and his associates found an answer to this challenge. They basically took DNA which is a genetic material that guides living cells on how to function and used it to control the chemical reaction, which in turn overcame a major obstacle to Little’s superconductor. To put it concisely, they took the support of chemistry in order to perform structural engineering, which is astonishingly precise, constructing at the level of every individual molecule. The outcome was a lattice of carbon nanotubes coming together as required for Little’s room-temperature superconductor.
Egelman said that this work represents a systematic modification of carbon nanotubes that can be accomplished by taking advantage of DNA-sequence control due to the spacing between reaction sites that are positioned next to each other.
The lattice they created has not yet been tested for superconductivity; however, this proves the principle, and according to scientists, has excellent potential for future use. Egelman, whose previous work led him to being inducted to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors a scientist can receive, said that so far cryo-Em had comparatively less impact in material science. In contrast, it has appeared as the primary method in biology to determine the atomic structures of protein assemblies.
Egelman and his colleagues mentioned that their approach to guiding DNA in order to build a lattice might have a wide range of useful research applications, mainly in physics. Moreover, it also validates the probability of constructing Little’s room-temperature superconductor. Researchers working on the project, along with other innovations in superconductors in recent years, might eventually make technological changes.
Egelman said that even though everyone thinks of using biology techniques and tools from physics, the work done by this team of scientists shows that approaches being created in biology can be applied to real life challenges in physics as well as engineering. The most interesting fact about science is that, it cannot be predicted what these research outcomes will lead to.