Hacking matter

translucent databases One of my holiday books was Wil McCarthy's Hacking Matter, an engaging treatise on the theory and possible uses of man-made atoms. So I was delighted to see that McCarthy will be speaking on the subject at the Emerging Technology conference in February.

An abbreviated version of the book is available as Ultimate Alchemy, a 2001 article in Wired that spells out the relationship between quantum dots and programmable matter. A quantum dot, which can be engineered in a number of ways, is a three-dimensional electron trap.

The electrons trapped in a quantum dot will arrange themselves as though they were part of an atom, even though there's no atomic nucleus for them to surround. Which atom they resemble depends on the number of excess electrons trapped inside. What's more, the electrons in two adjacent quantum dots will interact just as they would in two real atoms placed at the equivalent distance, meaning the two dots can share electrons between them - they can form connections equivalent to chemical bonds. Not virtual or simulated bonds, but real ones. [Wil McCarthy: Ultimate Alchemy]

What could you do with materials made of this stuff? Of the zillions of possible applications, the book emphasizes smart houses and smart vehicles that tune themselves in realtime to manage energy more efficiently. Walls that adjust their transmissivity -- from reflective to opaque to transparent -- in response both to the sun and to the needs of the inhabitants. Cars whose bodies dynamically adjust their storage of electrical and kinetic energy. Of course there are infotech- and biotech-related applications too, but as 2003 should have made clear to everyone, we're way overdue for smarter ways to manage energy.

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