P – Programmable Silicon

More than half a month ago, when we kicked off with A for Antimatter, I discussed the use of this (anti)material in a couple of contexts, including in the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F Hamilton.  Today we return to this series to look at another material, Programmable Silicon.  The Trilogy is immense, running to some one million words, (give or take a couple), and there are some additional short stories that flesh out some of the history.  There is also a handbook that delves into some of the details and provides further information (although thankfully the Handbook is a mere few hundred pages and less dense than the parent space opera).  Whilst the books are each well over a thousand pages, the story never drags, although it is by far from being a simply relentless, action packed saga.   As I said at the beginning of the alphabet, the books take in the whole human condition, from the perspective of multiple characters (including a number of real and fictional people from different historical eras who are returned to some semblance of life, and who are trying to deal with the changes that have occurred), and from the perspective of different cultures.

I do need to get it off my chest though, that as a scientist, trained from undergrad days to provide the definition of an abbreviation or acronym the first time that it is used, it is incredibly irritating to have something described in an off-hand way with minimal detail and then having to wait several chapters – or more – for the full description of what is being described.  One example is SII, which when it turns up in the text could mean anything, and it is only much later that you learn that it stands for State Industrial Institute.  The back story here is that the Moon Colony, which is populated by individuals who have undergone genetic engineering in order for life on the moon to be less of a (long-term) strain on the human body.  For reasons that I don’t have the time or space to go into here, the population of the Moon cedes from Earth, becomes essentially communist, and funds the terraforming of Mars.  This project begun, Faster Than Light (FTL) travel become possible and there is no further need for terraforming to be undertaken.  The SII, is therefore a state-owned manufacturing and scientific research entity with two functions: i) make money in order to pay for the terraforming process and ii) investigate technologies that can be used to support said terraforming activities.  It turns out that it is very good at both.

And this brings us to Programmable Silicon, which is a development of ‘micro-function supermolecules’ developed for terraforming, but which turn out to have a surprising number of applications beyond the original.  One application is for space suit technology.  Astronauts have a fairly unmistakable uniform, albeit one that looks incredibly cumbersome.  The suit is designed to keep air in, the vacuum of space out, to maintain a sensible body temperature and stop the astronaut from being boiled alive by direct sunlight.  Ensuring that blood and internal organs stay where they are is a primary function of the suit, and there is of course additional functionality in terms of air-supply, communications, drinking water and the like.  Bolt-ons include ‘jet-packs’, tools and so on.  But what if you could look more like Spiderman*?  This is not as far-fetched as it may seem and there is a second generation of space suits already being developed, which aims to keep the body at the right temperature and pressure.  You still need a helmet, to provide certain functions, and to manage your air supply, but you are now in a position where you can be a lot more flexible and hence speedy on your space walks.  Programmble Silicon, in the books, is the logical extension of this.  Pull the collar over your head, attached to which is a respirator and a football sized globe of Programmable Silicon.  Press the button and the silicon changes shape to engulf you in a protective layer.  All that’s left is to put on a helmet and you are good to face the perils of space, or whatever extreme environment you are dealing with.

*Insert suitably completely costumed superhero of your choice.

Strictly speaking we should, I think be dealing with silicone, not silicon, although I (almost) feel churlish at pointing this out.  Silicon is an element, sitting in the same family as carbon.  It’s a major part of the kind of glass used for windows, table ware and glass fibre composites.  Silicones are effectively silicon based polymers, so that instead of a long chain of carbon atoms you have repeating Si-O groups, where pendant groups, which could hang off any carbon can only hang off the Si atoms.  (Together with variations in how carbon is bonded to each other, we call this functionality).  There is currently a lot of work being done to make programmable polymers which, on the application of an electrical impulse, can change shape or property.  Such programmable polymers can extend, say in the way that your tongue does if you stick it out, or can stiffen or soften. Whilst we’re not there yet, there are projects that are looking at the possibility of manipulators that act like an elephant’s trunk or an octopuses’ tentacle.  The major stumbling block is the significant number of muscles/muscle fibres that need to be controlled.  If you think about typing a blog or making a cup of tea there are a significant number of actions that need to be performed.  We take for granted everything that our brain is doing during all of this, and of course it is not taking up our entire capacity, but if we think in these terms then there are three issues that need to be overcome.  One: we need to manufacture a material that can change shape and properties at the microstructural level (i.e. collections of molecules, not just a big lump of the stuff).  Two: the control system for this needs to be completely dispersed and flexible enough to change shape with the parent material.  Three: we need to be able to control this material with a sufficiently robust/’clean’ code that it can do what we want without fuss.

Whilst changing form a globe to a skin tight layer is as bit of an ask, we are talking about 500 years or so of development from where we are today, so it might just work.

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2 thoughts on “P – Programmable Silicon

    1. If it is actually doable, I don’t suppose we’ll have to wait 500 years – although with the political climate what it is at the moment, research is going to slow down some. Still, what is science fiction yesterday often becomes science fact tomorrow

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