October 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Forget the huge factories of Apple, Samsung and HP: it seems that bacteria might be able to make faster, smaller and more powerful computers than we can. Biologically based wires and tiny hard-drives have been grown in the lab by a team from the University of Leeds and the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.

The team have used the bacterium Magnetospirillum magneticum to create tiny magnets similar to those found in traditional hard drives, only much smaller. “The machines we’ve traditionally used to build computer components are clumsy at such small scales. Nature has provided us with the perfect tool to circumvent this problem,” says Dr Sarah Staniland, who led the research.

They hope that this new technique will allow the production of cheaper, more environmentally friendly electronics in the future. “This would be a huge advantage over the expensive and wasteful systems used now,” says Dr Staniland. But surely, with bacteria doing all the hard work, there will be some safety concerns? “These microbes can be found in lakes all over the UK,” says Staniland. “They definitely don’t pose any safety risks.”

With the help of proteins, the team have also built ‘nanowires’ only a few nanometres in size. They consist of quantum dots, which are semiconducting particles of metal sulphides, sheathed in fat molecules. These have the potential to make quantum computers, which could process information much faster than current systems and bypass all the encryption schemes used today.

Potential applications for these nanoparticles seem to be endless. Currently used in lighting, quantum dots have recently been shown to be safe in primates and could be used to treat blindness, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. They could even help to shape a greener world by doubling the efficiency of photovoltaic cells, thus reducing the cost of solar power.

Quantum dots have also been hailed as the ‘Holy Grail’ of quantum computing. Eminent theoretical physicist Jeff Forshaw recently stated in the Observer that “quantum computers are ever closer to becoming a reality, and when they arrive they will revolutionise computing power”.

As well as magnets and wires, the potential to grow other computer parts looks promising. Dr Staniland envisions a computer nanochip which could be assembled entirely by bacteria and proteins. She hopes that research in this field will continue to develop at a fast pace, estimating that “in 10 years’ time, we may be able to grow biologically based computers”.

Image from Quantum dot from Wikipedia.com