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Published on April 22nd, 2009 | by Tina Casey


DARPA Passes Key Programmable Matter Milestone

April 22nd, 2009 by  

DARPA is Researching Programmable MatterBeam me up, Scotty: programmable matter is one step closer to reality.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has just announced the successful completion of a key milestone in Phase I of its Programmable Matter research.  The goal is to develop particles that can assemble into solid objects on command – and that’s got big implications both for warfighters and the military’s carbon bootprint, too.

DARPA’s Programmable Matter Research

Five university research teams have been tackling the project from different angles.  Put them all together and, Star Trek imagery aside, DARPA’s Programmable Matter concept can be compared to a superstrong, biologically structured Rubik’s Cube operating on the principles of Velcro and origami.  The milestone result of the research is a mathematical model that demonstrates the theoretical viability of programmable matter.

Programmable Matter and the Military

Getting back to Star Trek, a closer analogy might be the infamous push-button commissary from the original TV series.  Forget about the prop hand who pushed meals through the slot of the plywood set, the apparent magic was an infinite variety of food instantly assembled from a few basic elements.  Better yet, there’s the hyped-up talking sewing machine from Forbidden Planet that delivered fashion on demand.  DARPA envisions something similar for the military: a single material that can be assembled into an infinite variety of forms, from combat gear to medical supplies, all closely tailored to the circumstances.

Programmable Matter and the Military’s Carbon Bootprint

Programmable matter would essentially enable the military to create supplies as needed, on or close to their place of use.  For the military’s carbon bootprint, one immediate result would be to reduce or practically eliminate waste; a chief goal of the research is to develop a material that can be disassembled into its base elements and, presumably, reused over and over again.  You’d also see a huge drop in carbon emissions related to shipping and packaging supplies.

Would the energy demand of programmable matter cancel out these gains?  Not necessarily.  The military has been heavily involved in alternative fuel development including solar powered blimps and algae-based jet fuel.  By the time programmable matter becomes a reality, the carbon-neutral energy to power it could already be in place.

DARPA, Programmable Matter, and You

As for the implications for civilian use of programmable matter, look no farther than the Internet, which began life as a DARPA project and is now literally in everyone’s pants pocket.  You might not find a programmable matter machine in the kitchen next to the dishwasher, but it could initially take shape as a commercial venture or a community resource, like a library.  Sounds far-fetched?  In a way, manufacturing on demand is happening right now with the downloadable design trend.  In fact, it long predates the Internet.  Remember those old machines that would spit out a plastic toy on demand?  Somewhere out there, a Mold-a-Rama is watching DARPA’s progress – and smiling.

Image: MikeBlog at flickr. 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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