Molecular engineers consult nature

Nature has been manipulating structures on the atomic and molecular scale for millions of years, in comparison humans have only been developing these techniques over the last few decades. Molecular engineering builds structures and devices at the smallest scales imaginable, aiming to make better materials, new types of information technologies, biomedical devices and much more. In an article, `Natural strategies for the molecular engineer`, published today in the Institute of Physics` journal, Nanotechnology, Philip Ball, consultant editor of Nature, discusses how molecular engineers can learn from the designs and tricks employed by nature – in processes ranging from catalysis to mechanical motion, energy conversion, information processing and materials synthesis.

Ball said: “In several sectors of engineering, the components have been shrinking in size for many decades. Now the scale is approaching the proportions of living cells, and we can see that engineers are confronting many, if not most, of the same challenges as biological cells. They need to make materials to harness, convert and transmit energy, to store and process information and to generate motion.”

However, Ball points out that nature`s solutions are often quite different to those we use. For example, leaves are essentially cheap and reasonably efficient solar cells and some of nature`s catalysts, enzymes, carry out chemical reactions of a delicacy far exceeding that of their man-made industrial counterparts.

Although nature has much to teach us, Ball also warns that we should be careful of always assuming that `nature knows best`. The cell does not necessarily share the same objectives as an engineer and there is no reason to believe that nature always does things the most efficient way. Bell suggests that molecular engineers adopt a selective attitude, picking and choosing what may be useful from nature`s bag of tricks.

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