Posted: Mon, February 11, 2013 | By: Ian Linnel
“The groundwork for the technology and science we use has been in existence for decades, it is not nanotechnology or advanced Synthetic biology…but anatomy, electrical engineering, and programming.”
These words can be found on the website for Grindhouse Wetwares, the collective of grinders where I’ve been developing for over a year now. Certainly, we haven’t been using any nanotechnology thus far in our projects, and nanotechnology itself is probably one of the fields of technology that most people intuitively feel will be out of DIY hands for decades to come. Even synthetic biology is being tackled by enthusiasts, but nanotechnology is still imagined to be like moonshine. I’m here to tell you that’s not true; basic nanotechnology can be done on a DIY level, even with today’s technology.
First, a bit about my background. I’m currently studying mathematics and physics. I have a particular interest in quantum mechanics and quantum chemistry. Most of the contributions to grinding that I’ve made, however, have been in the field of electrical engineering – essentially, applied classical electrodynamics. I’ve therefore been looking for ways to contribute using my interest in quantum mechanics. Recently, I learned some basic solid-state physics – one of the main scientific fields behind nanotech – and I began thinking of ways to apply this knowledge to creating DIY nanotech.
Just in case the very idea seems silly to any of you, the isolation of graphene is something to keep in mind. Graphene is a commonly talked-about nanomaterial, and it’s essentially one of those magical materials that will do everything except your taxes. In addition to being an excellent conductor and having great thermal properties, graphene is approximately a hundred times stronger than steel. A common analogy used is that graphene could withstand the pressure of an elephant balanced on a pencil. Yet, for all its amazing properties, graphene is identical in structure to the graphite used in your pencil lead; the difference is just that graphene is a single atom thick.
Manchester scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in 2010 for having isolated graphene. Surely, the method they used must have been incredibly complex, right? Actually, they just used adhesive tape to repeatedly split graphite crystals, until they were statistically guaranteed to get a few pieces of single-layer graphene. While this is no good for mass production of graphene, it still works as a proof of concept. After all, while the tape used was a very clean brand with little residue, even Scotch tape will work. All that is required is to break off a piece of pencil lead, and after a little bit of work you can replicate Geim’s experiment.
In point of fact, it doesn’t even appear that I’m the first to come up with the idea of DIY nanotech. A quick search on Google returns a method for making DIY magnetite crystals (which can reusably remove some toxins from water), along with several schematics for a DIY scanning tunneling microscope (which can both view and manipulate individual atoms).
So, what contributions do I have to make to this emerging field? I shall close by outlining one of my first DIY nanotech projects. It began when I first told fellow Grindhouse developer Tim Cannon about some of my ideas for DIY nanotech, and he asked me to come up with a way to produce C60-fullerene, aka buckyballs (those soccerball-shaped carbon molecules), on a DIY level. Why would he want to produce those? Well, you may be familiar with the study which concluded that buckyballs mixed with olive oil can nearly double the lifespan of mice. Even if you feel that the study is bunk (personally, I’m annoyed that they starved the experimental group, thereby potentially confounding the results), being able to replicate or falsify it would still be an interesting endeavor. Plus, the potential uses for buckyballs go beyond their potential life extension abilities.
After doing a bit of research on the subject, I found that soot actually contains just about every carbon structure known to humanity, including graphene, carbon nanotubes and buckyballs. Once you have soot, you can purify it in order to get the structure you want. Since I imagine most biohackers aren’t going to be getting it from their chimney, the task was on me to figure out a cheap, efficient way to get soot.
While nearly-pure carbon is readily available in the form of graphite, you cannot simply burn it to get what you want. While you can get some soot that way, the bulk of the carbon is going to react with oxygen in the air to produce carbon dioxide. We need a more efficient method than that. The first step is to remove the oxygen from the equation. Rather than try to create a vacuum, the best way to do this is to fill a container with some relatively inert gas, such as helium, argon or nitrogen. Once you have that, all you need to do is introduce some energy to the carbon.
With that in mind, this is the method that I gave to Tim:
1. Break a pencil lead in half, and attach the halves as electrodes to a circuit connected to a battery.
2. Fill a container with helium, and stick the electrodes in there without allowing oxygen to enter. Allow the electrodes to arc with each other. This provides the energy needed to convert layers of the graphite electrodes into soot.
3. Collect the soot from the container. Place the soot into some solvent that can do the trick (for example, the polycyclic aromatic compounds that are sometimes used to clean the soot from chimneys). Given that fullerenes such as buckyballs are the only allotropes of carbon that truly dissolve in organic solvents, the resulting solution should contain a decent fraction of buckyballs.
As of this writing, Tim has gotten approval from his local hackerspace to try this experiment himself. Now, I looked up how commercial companies and research labs produce this, and it seems most of their methods are closely-guarded secrets. I did find one other method that involves burning hydrocarbons at low pressure. That would be doable, though somewhat harder than the method I came up with. The advantage of it, though, is that it can be used to bulk-produce this material with 95% purity.
I could ramble on about some other ideas I had in this field, but I want to know what you can do. The current state of DIY nanotech is just what a few random lunatics on the internet can come up with; if more of us began researching this, what could we do together? Don’t buy a word of the notion that nanotech is out of our hands; pick up your hand tools, and find out for yourself!
To watch a video on Buckyball + Olive Oil = Extended Lifespan, click HERE