New biotech materials could turn us all into superheroes
Author Boyd Farrow
People of a certain age will recall poring through the ad pages of comic books, coveting X-Ray Specs and Invisibility Helmets. Today’s kids, of course, derive similar fantasies from the CGI-jinks of films like X-Men and The Avengers. But these science fictions, it turns out, are quickly becoming nonfictions.
Recently, researchers across the world have started making noise about the prospect of superhuman vision, robotic blood cells that allow us to breathe underwater and a kind of living superglue that would enable broken bones to “regrow.” And while it’s unlikely that anyone will be leaping tall buildings in a single bound anytime soon, there has been talk of an invisibility cloak.
If you think this stuff will get pre-teen kids worked up, you should see the scientists who are working on it. The research community is abuzz with flappy fanboy excitement over the emerging field of metamaterials, a range of synthetics that can be produced in labs on an atomic scale, and whose properties seem to confound basic natural laws.
Take graphene, which is a million times thinner than paper and 200 times stronger than steel. This wonder stuff—described as “the new silicon”—also conducts power and heat more efficiently than anything ever discovered. Tech firms like Apple and Samsung are betting that it will transform the digital arena. Some believe it will make energy production drastically cleaner and less expensive. Graphene, they say, will save the world.
Zhaohui Zhong, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, has other applications in mind. His team of researchers has been working on supersensitive graphene contact lenses that, he says, will allow people to see in the dark or even to look through solid materials.
Zhong isn’t the only researcher looking to one-up biology through metamaterials. Teams in Germany and Israel recently collaborated to create a shape-shifting nanorobot made out of a new kind of plastic that can swim, Fantastic Voyage–like, through bodily fluids to deliver drugs. Google, for its part, recently announced it is designing tiny magnetic particles to patrol the human body looking for signs of disease.
Nanotechnology pioneer Robert Freitas believes computer-guided artificial blood cells—or respirocytes—will bring us close to biological perfection. Indeed, given that they transport oxygen 200 times more efficiently than natural red blood cells, respirocytes promise earth-shattering performance enhancement. “They could allow us to hold our breath for four hours at the bottom of a swimming pool,” Freitas claims, “or sprint for 15 minutes before taking a breath.”
In recent years, businesses and government agencies, eager to come out ahead of the field, have been pouring billions into research involving metamaterials and nanotech-enabled robotics. The University of Pennsylvania’s new $92 million nanotech research hub is among the leaders, having recently produced “diamond nanothreads” so strong and light that their developers claim they may one day allow us to take elevators into space. And if that’s not sci-fi enough for you, the lab has also developed a kind of invisibility cloak—albeit on a very small scale.
Penn professor Nader Engheta, a leading figure in metamaterials, believes that the rapid development of these substances is set to be accelerated even further by “new printing techniques, which mean that larger areas of metamaterials can be made with lower costs.” He cites a new generation of “superlenses,” which will allow people to see things invisible to the most powerful microscopes, and so set the stage for the creation of even more extraordinary metamaterials.
As for the aforementioned invisibility trick, Engheta and his team have found a way of using metamaterials to bend light, creating the illusion that the object being covered by them isn’t there at all. The next step, Engheta says, will be to create “fluidic metamaterials,” or invisibility paint.
Such products could revolutionize pretty much every area of life, from travel to healthcare to law enforcement to warfare. “Whatever people are excited about now—robots, 3-D printing—is nothing compared to what is happening in the field of metamaterials,” says Evan Lerner, a spokesman for Penn. “What a handful of people are working on now is going to change the planet in ways we can’t even imagine.”
When asked what he might do if endowed with invisibility, Engheta provides a response that seems to have more in common with those old comic book ads than with scientific research. “I’d use it to do good deeds,” he says, “without being noticed.”
Berlin-based writer Boyd Farrow hasn’t been able to find his car keys, and he fears metamaterials may be responsible.