Out of Thin Air: The Real Star Trek Replicator?
MIT and Yale graduates invent a carbon nanotube membrane that can re-arrange molecular building blocks and that one day may be able to create a solid product out of “thin air”.
The discovery is reminiscent of more recent advancements in 3D printing, including holographic 3D printing. Except that instead of using light to materialize an object out of a bed of liquid, researchers exploit the unique ability of porous carbon material to break apart gas and liquid inside of it’s nanotube membrane. Essentially allowing them to re-arrange the molecules in to something else.
The MIT and Yale alumni founded a startup called Mattershift.
“This technology gives us a level of control over the material world that we’ve never had before,” said Mattershift Founder and CEO Dr. Rob McGinnis in a release. “For example, right now we’re working to remove CO2 from the air and turn it into fuels. This has already been done using conventional technology, but it’s been too expensive to be practical. Using our tech, I think we’ll be able to produce carbon-zero gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels that are cheaper than fossil fuels.”
Over the past several years a lot of research has been conducted on process called CO2 extraction. That is the ability to extract CO2 gas from the air to create useful objects like plastic, glue or even coal. Mattershift is essentially taking this one step further and asking the question – could we create solid objects out of any gas? Including free flowing air, composed primarily of nitrogen, and oxygen.
“It should be possible to combine different types of our CNT membranes in a machine that does what molecular factories have long been predicted to do: to make anything we need from basic molecular building blocks,” said McGinnis.
You see – every molecule is composed of certain elements. CO2 being one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. If you can break apart the CO2 molecule in to it’s constituent elements you would have 3 separate atoms that can be recombined or re-purposed. For example, you could re-inject the oxygen back in to the atmosphere and use the carbon to create graphene – an extremely light, durable and multifaceted material.
Imagine if we could print graphene products out of thin air. There’s no doubt that it would fundamentally revolutionize industry and economics. Combine that with programmable matter, that is the ability to program a material i.e. piece of matter to perform certain behaviors and you have an absolutely mind boggling future of unlimited potential.
This fact alone brings down cost and manufacturing time significantly, which should allow Mattershift to make a smooth transition from the lab to the factory.
“We’re talking about printing matter from the air. Imagine having one of these devices with you on Mars. You could print food, fuels, building materials, and medicines from the atmosphere and soil or recycled parts without having to transport them from Earth.” said McGinnis.
Mattershift has decided to begin by creating fuel. Since energy is so vital to our infrastructure there is a huge market out there for anyone that can decrease the cost and time require to produce fuel. Materializing energy out of thin air would certainly qualify the company and may even propel them in to a future where we can print anything out of thin air, akin to the Star Trek Replicator – a common piece of technology found in the popular sci-fi TV series, which is often used to print food.
Of course that is another topic entirely – as we are actually well on our way to 3D printing food and cooking it at the same time!