Researchers at Leeds University and Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have been studying iron eating bacteria to create magnetic storage and circuitry. They observed the bacteria, having digested some iron become, in effect, tiny magnets. From understanding how the proteins affect the arrangement of the nanomagnets within the bacteria cells the researchers have managed to replicate these behaviours.
Current machine operated tools are slowing in their progress in making our computer chips and components smaller and faster. A new process like this bacterial building of computer components could help us leap into the future of miniaturisation.
Dr Sarah Staniland, lead researcher at the University of Leeds, said of the research; "We are quickly reaching the limits of traditional electronic manufacturing as computer components get smaller. The machines we've traditionally used to build them are clumsy at such small scales. Nature has provided us with the perfect tool to deal with this problem."
The process devised at Leeds doesn't use actual live bacteria but just mimics the way the naturally occurring magnetic bacteria work in growing and arranging tiny pieces of magnetic material. It is hoped that the methodology can be extrapolated to create magnetic data storage but on the nano scale, meaning more data in a smaller space with faster reading and writing speeds, using less energy overall.
Ph.D. student Johanna Galloway at Leeds created a magnetic array using the bacterium Magnetospirilllum magneticum. She said "Using today's 'top-down' method - essentially sculpting tiny magnets out of a big magnet - it is increasingly difficult to produce the small magnets of the same size and shape which are needed to store data. Using the method developed here at Leeds, the proteins do all the hard work; they gather the iron, create the most magnetic compound, and arrange it into regularly-sized cubes."
Meanwhile in parallel research at Tokyo University progress has been made in the creation of nanowires. The method is similar to that used by the Leeds researchers but wires of quantum dots are created by using a different protein to influence the process. The different protein causes the magnetic bacteria to arrange into a tube shape.
With these basic building blocks and others in development more complicated and more useful electronic components should be able to be made. Dr Staniland puts it this way; “Our aim is to develop a toolkit of proteins and chemicals which could be used to grow computer components from scratch.”
Time and again nature has shown to science, engineering, medicine and design the most elegant solutions to our modern day problems. This time a humble bacterium has shown us how to make nanomagnets and nanowires to make our computer components smaller and more efficient.