We’re so accustomed to the concept of devices sending signals via electrons, that we don’t even think about the term ‘Electronics’ anymore. Thanks to University of Washington Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Marco Rolandi, however, that may be about to change. He and his fellow researchers have created a transistor that sends protons as signals, rather than electrons. Since humans and other living creatures also send signals using protons and other ions, this research, published in Nature Communications, may be the beginning of major advances in medicine and other fields.
Interview with Professor Rolandi
Professor Rolandi, lead author of the project, recently agreed to answer a few questions about his research.
Decoded Science: What was your inspiration for this project?
M. Rolandi:Four years ago, when I was applying for a faculty job, I had to come up with research proposals. I have a background in nanofabrication and nanotube electronics, but I have always been fascinated by biolelectronics. Specifically, I wanted to use biological molecules in transistors. One day, I was in my small apartment with the floor covered with papers from anything to DNA, proteins, and pretty much any piece of living tissue you could imagine. I was interested in keratin nanofibers as a support for poly anilines, which are good electronic conductors. Then at one point I thought: “Most of these molecules — at least the ones that have not been tried yet—are not very good at conducting electrons”. Then a paper I was reading mentioned the protonic conductivity of keratin. So I thought, perhaps protons are the way to go?
Decoded Science: What was the biggest challenge you and your team faced during this project?
M. Rolandi: Perhaps, the biggest challenge was to keep going when things were not working well. There was enough evidence that we were looking in the right direction, but nothing quite like it out there. I had a postdoc (Dr. Zhong) and a graduate student (Ms. Deng) invested for almost two years. I was concerned that I was wasting their time, if things did not work out. After some good initial data, our collaborators Prof. M. P Anantram (UW – Electrical Engineering) and Ms. Anita Fadavi (University of Waterloo) started modeling the devices. The results from the simulations matched closely my calculations and the experimental data. This was a big boost to our morale and confirmation that what we were observing was real.
Decoded Science: What do you consider to be the most important aspect of this success?
M. Rolandi: We now have a protonic parallel to electronic circuitry that we start to understand rather well.
Decoded Science: It sounds more like science-fiction, but could we be looking at the beginnings of a technology that could lead to real-life cyborgs, or human-machine hybrids?
M. Rolandi: I certainly hope not! It would be nice if, in the far future, we could have implantable devices that monitor proton related biological process to help in early disease detection and therapeutics. Applications are quite far off, it’s just daydreaming for now.
Electricity:Natural vs. Artificial Signals
Natural systems send signals with protons and other ions. Man-made electric devices, however send signals using electrons. In the drive to create devices that can integrate with natural systems, such as our bodies, a device that sends signals in the same manner as a natural system has real advantages.
Many thanks to Professor Rolandi for the interview.