Fantastic voyage

 

When engineering researcher Dr James Friend came to Monash four years ago, he set about delivering less ''bang for the buck''. Considering he previously designed a trigger fuse to set off a thermo-nuclear bomb, that had to be a very good thing.

In fact, Associate Professor Friend is parlaying knowledge of piezoelectricity from his days in US military research into developing pioneering nano-engineering devices such as a miniscule microbot motor which is set to make stunning advances in medicine.

"What did Theodore Roosevelt say? 'Speak softly, and carry a big stick.' I do believe in carrying a big stick, but a thermo-nuclear weapon is just too big!" Dr Friend, now 38, said of shifting his goals to peaceful purposes.

His transition continues in a laboratory deep in Mechanical Engineering on the Clayton campus, where entrants face danger signs -- Flammable Materials, High Powered Ultrasound, High Voltage and Biohazards -- and must wear biologically clean suits and safety glasses. No food or drink either.

Nothing must corrupt the purity of the Micro/NanoPhysics Research Laboratory (MNRL), the $7 million ''clean room'' that uses high-powered air filters to suck out every grain of dust that could gum up the tiny devices.

Finding a critical mass of creativity with fluids expert Dr Leslie Yeo, Dr Friend recently led his team to create the world's smallest useful motor, only a quarter of a millimetre wide. It has just four moving parts and is powered by piezoelectricity, the pressure-based energy source commonly used in sparking a gas barbecue or cooktop.

Known as Proteus, from the cult science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, the motor will be able to be placed via the tip of a catheter close to an inaccessible point in the body, such as deep in the brain structures, and power through the bloodstream to the exact location needed.

In the 1960s film, Proteus is the name for the experimental submarine that is shrunk to sub-cellular size, and injected into a dying scientist to save his life.

Dr Friend expects progress in micro-sizing cameras will allow the microbot to use them to enhance the surgeon's remote view -- extending the frontier of surgery.

For information visit the Micro/NanoPhysics Research Laboratory website.