FARNBOROUGH, England — Forget 3-D printing. BAE Systems is working with a UK scientist on an advanced computer it hopes may one day be able to grow aircraft molecule by molecule.
The "Chemputer," developed by University of Glasgow scientist Lee Cronin, looks a lot like a 3-D printer, but builds objects through a very different process, said Nick Colosimo, a BAE Systems global engineering fellow and futurist, during a Wednesday briefing at Farnborough International Airshow.
Instead of depositing a material layer by layer via robotics to gradually build up a structure — the process used for 3-D printing — the Chemputer operates at a molecular level, combining a variety of molecules together and then using that chemical reaction to synthesize the object.
"This is really an idea that you use a machine which has access to a number of different chemicals, and you effectively enact chemistry," he said. "You provide a data file to the machine and say, 'I want ibuprofen,' and the machine will produce ibuprofen or a range of other pharmaceuticals. Because in principle you can produce molecules in different shapes and different size."
Through a UK government-funded program called Digital Synthesis, Cronin has used the Chemputer to produce tiny metal objects, such as small gold pyramids or rods. Colosimo, who works as Cronin's industrial adviser, compared the computer's process to a robotic lab assistant who is constantly running millions of experiments.
"The machine will mix some chemicals together and see what happens in terms of the reaction, and look at the reaction products. But it will do this very, very quickly," he said. "What the machine will do is use an algorithm in order to conduct these directed trial and error experiments. So the experiments that don't work, they will die off. The experiments that do work will be continued and adapted, ultimately producing small nanoparticles."
Once the machine learns how to make an object, it can put those structures together in new ways. For example, after making the gold pyramid and rod, it was told to create a rod with a pyramid on each end and was able to use its prior experience to do so. It has also made small, Lego-like bricks.
BAE believes the technology may one day be used to create small unmanned aircraft quicker than through the typical manufacturing process. Users could choose the aircraft's capabilities from a menu of options, and then the computer would figure out the best way to grow the drone, the company envisions.
Another potential application is the development of completely novel materials by combining molecules in new ways to create substances that are more durable or lightweight, Colosimo said.
"We've still got a long way to go before we start producing something as complex and as capable as an aircraft," he said.
The discovery of new materials could occur much sooner. Cronin is working on data files that contain information about particular molecules and materials, which the Chemputer can use to run trial-and-error style experiments.
"New materials discovery — certainly I think we're talking years. Whether it's three years or whether its 10 years, it's too hard to say at this particular stage," he said. "But certainly the discovery of new materials, certainly that's in the cards. The machine has already produced one of the world's largest molecules."
Cronin and Colosimo have some ideas of what types of new materials they would like to create and what molecules could possibly give rise to them. But that information is too sensitive to be released, Colosimo said.