The device is made of a compound known as duroquinone. This molecule resembles a hexagonal plate with four cones linked to it, "like a small car," explained researcher Anirban Bandyopadhyay, an artificial intelligence and molecular electronics scientist at the National Institute for Materials Science at Tsukuba in Japan. The machine is made of 17 duroquinone molecules. One molecule sits at the center of a ring formed by the remaining 16. The entire invention sits on a surface of gold.
Scientists operate the device by tweaking the center duroquinone with electrical pulses from an extremely sharp electrically conductive needle. The molecule and its four cones can shift around in a variety of ways depending on different properties of the pulse — say, the pulse's strength.
Since weak chemical bonds link the center duroquinone with the surrounding 16 duroquinones, each of those shifts too. Imagine, for instance, a spider in the middle of a web made of 16 strands. If the spider moves in one direction, each thread linked to it experiences a slightly different tug from all the others. Since duroquinone possesses four cones, each molecule essentially has four different settings. Since the central molecule can simultaneously control 16 other duroquinones, mathematically this means a single pulse at the machine can have 416 — or nearly 4.3 billion — different outcomes.
The idea is to hook this new gadget up with other molecules — either copies of itself or different compounds other scientists have invented. For instance, researchers have created a host of machines just a molecule or so large over the last decade or two — motors, propellers, switches, elevators, sensors and so on. The new invention might offer a way to control all those other compounds to work as a whole. Indeed, Bandyopadhyay and his colleagues revealed they could hook up eight other such "molecular machines" to their invention, working together as if they were part of a miniature factory.
Bandyopadhyay added they could expand their device from a two-dimensional ring of 16 duroquinones around the center to a three-dimensional sphere of 1,024 duroquinones. This means it could perform 1,024 instructions at once, for 41024 different outcomes — a number larger than a 1 with 1,000 zeroes after it. They would control the molecule at the center of the sphere by manipulating "handles" sticking out from the core.
"We are definitely going to 3-D from 2-D immediately," Bandyopadhyay said.
That report is from Charles Choi at LiveScience.
This tiny "brain-like" device could prove to be very big indeed.
UPDATE: BBC News has an article up that describes the development as a "tiny chemical 'brain' which could one day act as a remote control for swarms of nano-machines."
UPDATE 2: Commenting on the story for MSNBC, Alan Boyle writes, "If scientists can create assembles that can pass along instructions from one molecule to 16, then to 256, then to 4,096, and so on — pretty soon you could have nanofactories capable of churning out mega amounts of custom-designed molecules."
UPDATE 3: MSNBC also has a video posted that illustrates the nanoscale brain-like computer and even shows STM images of the device.