"THERE IS PLENTY OF ROOM IN THE MIDDLE," says Hod Lipson, referring to physicist Richard Feynman's 1956 lecture, "There is plenty of room at the bottom," which first mooted the idea of nanotechnology.
Lipson, an associate professor at Cornell University, works in robotics and programmable matter, creating innovations such as a coffee gripper, robots that build trusses, and the 3D printing project Fab@Home. Lipson's group is also finding startling results by printing in layers to make new, synthesised materials.
"These new forms are unpredictable," he says. When, for example, you stretch a rubber band it gets thinner. But, he says, if you print hard and soft materials in a specific pattern you can make a material that instead gets thicker when you pull on it.
"No natural materials are like that, but we can print it. It's the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what else we can make? We can't even predict what's possible."
Yet even very simple ideas - such as, for example, a material that senses increasing temperatures and expands up to a certain point and then suddenly shrinks - could be made into machines. It is this work that Lipson talks about as programmable matter.
It was this kind of thinking that led to the coffee gripper. "We asked, is there material that changes from hard to soft and back on command without changing temperature?" Yes, ground coffee. Apply a little bit of vacuum to a blob of coffee grounds and they solidify like a rock. Let air back in, and the grounds flow like a liquid.
"There are a million things you can do with it," he says. "It's a magic material - lightweight, and the grains are shaped in such a way that they interlock and become solid." In his demonstration, a thick balloon filled with coffee grounds flows around a ping pong ball, locks into place, and throws it across the room.
Born and brought up in Israel, Lipson says he wanted to do computer science when he finished secondary school, but military service intervened. As part of his navy service, he studied mechanical engineering. He followed that with a PhD at Haifa-based Technion Israel Institute of Technology in computer-aided design.
"Dad is a physicist at Technion," he says, "but he's also a hobbyist carpenter and makes things." Accordingly, he traces his interest in human-scale materials to a childhood spent learning to make things. "My perspective is manufacturing. I wasn't one of those kids who took everything apart. I'm interested in synthesis, not analysis."