On January 17, 1999, sci-fi fans tuning into their beloved “X-Files” were treated to a terrifying technological nightmare. At the beginning of the episode, Assistant Director of the FBI Walter Skinner becomes mysteriously ill. Black veins slowly spread across his body. The malady, it turns out, are microscopic machines in his blood.
“What the hell are they?” wonders his doctor. The answer: nanobots.
Sixteen years later, nanobots like the ones on “The X-Files” are now a real thing. And although the microscopic critters are still a bit creepy, scientists say the technology could have a hugely positive impact.
“The applications of this are just immense,” said Vikas Berry, an engineer at the University of Illinois at Chicago who led the nanobot experiment. “You can use this in food storage or outer space research.”
How, exactly, Berry and a team of six other scientists created the nanobots is complicated. But the basic building blocks are incredibly simple: bacteria and carbon.
To create nanobots you need something living plus some seriously high-tech gadgetry. For the first part, Berry turned to microscopic bacteria spores.
“A spore is a bacterial cell which has gone into hibernation, essentially,” he said. “It can stay in its hibernative form for centuries. I mean, it is a real marvel of nature. It can fight bad weather, it can fight high acidity, and just protect the genetic information that it has. And these spores are really small. They are micro scale spores. But they have this tendency to absorb water, and the idea they have is that they want to come back to life.”
As for the high-tech gadgetry, Berry turned to graphene, a “wonder material” that “could change the world.”
Graphene was invented, more or less by accident, in 2004. A one-atom-thick sheet of carbon, graphene is the thinnest, strongest and most conductive material known to humankind.
Berry simply — actually, rather complicatedly — put the two together to create his nanobots.
“We read a paper on spores and we were interested in sensors, so what we did is we took these graphene quantum dots — essentially 100 nanometer square sheets of graphene, which is, again, a single atom thick sheet — and we put these graphene quantum dots on the surface of a spore, and then we applied two electrodes on the end of the spore,” he explained. “When the humidity around the spore changes, what happens is that the spore either contracts or expands, and that contraction or expansion changes the way electrons move through these graphene quantum dots, which are on the surface of these spores.”
In other words, Berry’s nanobots weren’t just tiny cyborgs. They were also “a very very sensitive humidity sensor.”
“When we tested this humidity sensor, we were able to go down to really, really low pressure and low humidities,” he said. “We were able to differentiate between very small changes in humidity at a very low humidity range, which currently is a big challenge. Other devices, the way that they work is that their conductivity actually reduces when the humidity goes down so they become less and less sensitive at lower humidities. This device actually works in the opposite way. Its sensitivity increases as the humidity goes down.”
This technology could help fight famine by keeping food from spoiling or help libraries and museums protect their precious materials. But perhaps the most interesting application is in outer space.
“Finding water on Mars, finding water on other planets, or detecting any small leakages in space shuttles when they go into outer space,” Berry said. “You need very sensitive technology for those applications. This sensor would be perfect.”
To the dismay of this dorky Washington Post reporter, Berry said he didn’t remember the “X-Files” episode about nanobots. But he admitted his technology is similar, if less scary.
“I’m really, really fascinated about this because it’s kind of close to what I’m doing here,” he said. In fact, putting nanobots inside of the human body — perhaps to fight illness — could be just around the corner.
“The lessons learned from this device actually could be applied to other cells as well,” Berry said. “Nature is just rich in its functionality. There are several kinds of cells in the human body — bacteria, spores, yeast — all sorts of organisms out there [that could be used to make nanobots]. For example, there is one organism that actually produces protons on its surface. And this process of interfacing material objects with the machinery of cells, I think the possibilities are immense. We can do a lot of different things just by leveraging the activity and mechanisms in biology and… interfacing them with material objects like graphene quantum dots or carbon nano tubes.”
Berry’s research on nanobots was published last month in Scientific Reports. Technically, he prefers to call his tiny, half-cellular, half-carbon creations “cyborgs” rather than nanobots, a name which applies to any microscopic machine.
“A cyborg would be something where biomachinery is interfaced with a device, where you bring both components together and bring out the best in both fields,” he said. “There have been a lot of science fiction movies and cartoons about cyborgs. I actually did a search on Google images and I saw a lot of pictures of cyborgs which were half human, half machines. There is just a wide variety of science fiction stories about such systems and the fact that we were able to do that at micron scale is really fascinating.”
So for “The X-Files” fans out there, it might be too late to fight the future. The future is already here.