University of Southampton

Informed Matter

Our research in Informed Matter focuses on integrating information processing into physical and chemical systems to enable the formation of complex structure and functionality.  The overall aim is to facilitate a step-change in the complexity of synthetic materials and thus narrow the gap between the intricate material organisation found in the biological world and what is available in the present engineering tool-kit.  AIC activities in Informed Matter range from molecular to macroscopic scale and include molecular computing, self-assembly, and bio-hybrid devices.

A complexity barrier prevents chemists and engineers from entering the design space of the marvellously capable and efficient materials we see in the living world. To make the complexification of matter exhibited by nature amenable to engineering, it will be necessary to integrate information processing with the physical and chemical processes that govern the interaction of material building blocks.

In AIC we work towards this aim in three-pronged approach:

Molecular Information Technology

Living systems are peculiarly organised inhomogeneous arrangements of the very same matter that forms the remaining dead universe. Their highly organised state can be sustained only by active maintenance which in turn necessitates the processing of information—life without computation is inconceivable. Conversely, the proficiency with which single-cell organisms maintain their living state under adverse conditions and severe constraints in energy and material indicates the efficiency that may be achieved through the direct use of the physical characteristics of materials for computation.

In close collaboration with the Centre for Hybrid Biodevices at the Institute for Life Sciences AIC develops and implements molecular computing architectures based on micro droplets that are filled with a chemically excitable medium. Droplet-to-droplet excitations lead to a chemical pulse that travels through an array of droplets, mimicking neuronal impulses in the brain.

Self-Formation

Self-assembly processes in the broadest sense, including irreversible assembly and self-disassembly, play an important role in the organisation and as well as repair of biomolecular architectures. The loss of prescriptive control concomitant with molecular components and nano devices makes self-formation also important for manufacturing. Within AIC we employ self-assembly in the implementation of our molecular computing architectures and investigate strategies for self-formation on the macroscale.

Autonomous components

Present information technology is founded on the basis that computation can be formally prescribed independent of its physical realisation. Coercing a physical substrate to obey the formalism, however, comes at the price of a large overhead in material and energy. For the use of bio- and nano-materials it is often uneconomical, if not impossible to achieve a narrowly prescribed behaviour. This poses a challenge for the engineering of systems in which biomacromolecules or living cells play an important functional role. In AIC we investigate engineering approaches to the integration of such autonomous components into conventional architectures. We employ autonomous experimentation, i.e a closed-loop of computer-controlled experimentation and machine learning, to characterise materials or systems, such as enzymatic networks. We also develop the interface technology to integrate living cells into conventional electronic architectures.

 

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