The self-assembly of custom nanocomposite arrays.
Courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory The self-assembly of custom nanocomposite arrays.

According to architect and nanomaterial-researcher Peter Yeadon, "the design of matter should matter to designers." Architects like Aaron Sprecher likewise believe that the architecture of materials is as important as traditional architecture, as he told me in 2008. Aaron believes that students and practitioners should be involved in its development—despite the fact that material architecture typically refers to a microscopic scale.
One of the promises of material architecture is the ability to design novel substances from the ground up. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory have recently devised a  method to do just that, making multifunctional materials with different combinations of nanoparticles. As outlined in an October article published in  Nature Nanotechnology, the researchers have developed an open-ended method to create new substances by mixing and matching particles with tailored optical, magnetic, and/or chemical properties.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the process is that it is based on a model of synthetic DNA strands. The nanoparticle strands are coated with what the scientists call a "construction platform" and extender molecules that help individual particles bond to one another. The particles then autonomously assemble into 3D matrices comprised of billions of individual particles.
"Our study demonstrates that DNA-driven assembly methods enable the by-design creation of large-scale 'superlattice' nanocomposites from a broad range of nanocomponents now available—including magnetic, catalytic, and fluorescent nanoparticles," said physicist Oleg Gang in a Brookhaven press release. "This advance builds on our previous work with simpler systems, where we demonstrated that pairing nanoparticles with different functions can affect the individual particles' performance, and it offers routes for the fabrication of new materials with combined, enhanced, or even brand new functions."
As Yeadon and Sprecher would no doubt argue, architects should not wait to participate in this kind of research. Given the possibilities, what kinds of novel materials would you design?
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.