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Nuts and bolts that redefine 'tiny'

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Machinery that drove an industrial revolution a couple of centuries ago was often as large as a locomotive. You couldn't miss it when a new development made the scene. Mechanisms underlying this century's industrial progress are as small as molecules. Few of us note their arrival.

Take Hicham Fenniri's "microtruss," for example. The Purdue University chemist and his colleagues have developed a molecule-size analogue of the nuts, bolts, and universal parts of the old technology. These can be assembled into tiny linear structures to which other substances can be attached.

Depending on what these substances are and exactly how the structure is put together, the assembly could perform a variety of functions.

It might become an element in an electronic device. It could form part of a biosensor or other biomedical device inserted into a plant or animal body.

It could be a conduit taking in solar energy photons at one end and delivering them somewhere else. That would be useful in photoelectric devices or in systems that mimic photosynthesis. Future computers, for instance, are expected to rely on light instead of electric current.

The point, Professor Fenniri says, is that his microtruss is "amenable to engineering." He expects it to become a standard element in the parts inventory on which engineers will draw to design and fabricate useful devices.

That, in turn, makes it what Fenniri calls "a very nice example" of the nanotechnology that is likely to drive much industrial development from now on.

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