Prizewinning inventor has big dreams for nanotechnology

Brian Hubert, by his count, has come up with about 500 inventions.

The doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has filled hundreds of pages of notebooks with his neat scrawl and Leonardo-like drawings of potential inventions. Some don't pan out, like the Golfer's Swing Performance Meter or the airline food container. Others have won him $30,000 and the prestigious Lemelson-MIT student prize for inventiveness. His winning projects this year:

*A Nano Assembly Machine (below). With a tip the size of a human hair, it can dip into a reservoir of any material, (DNA, polymers, metals,) and quickly assemble several nanostructures, thousands of atoms at a time. What's astounding is that this machine works at room temperature (typically, nanotechnology works only in closely regulated temperatures). Mr. Hubert thinks the invention may eventually allow engineers to build ultradense gene chips which could trace a person's gene pattern in minutes.

*The Plastic Memory Chip. This is made from flexible sheets of aluminized plastic - the same material that lines some potato-chip bags - and carbon toner, similar to that found in a copy machine. Hubert stumbled upon this invention, which has the ability to store digital data like a computer chip, while trying to make a good conductor.

"Carbon on top of a potato-chip bag, [and] you get a memory capability," he says. "It's absurdly simple." Moreover, it is made without silicon, often an expensive part of traditional computer chips.

*The Superconductor Fabrication System. Already patented, these superconductors are links of wire that don't experience resistance when electrical energy moves through them. Eventually it could help solve California's energy crisis, Hubert says. He points out that copper wire, which is often used to transport energy, loses much of the energy on the way from the power plant to the home.

Hubert has been inventing all his life, says his father, Alexander, adding that his son has always been a perfectionist. "Whatever project he got his teeth into ... he never gave up until he drained that project of every last drop," he says. "He has tremendous powers of concentration."

Explaining what it's like to be an inventor, Hubert says, "You have a different mind-set when you're going about your daily life." He gets about five to nine ideas for inventions a week, or sometimes a day. He writes them on tablecloths or air-sickness bags on airplanes, and he even admits he has a hard time getting to sleep because so many ideas fill his head.

One of his earliest inventions was the "cheater meter," a device that tells people if they are getting the correct volume and grade of gas.

Hubert, who eschews a car in favor of a bicycle, says in his rare free time, he likes to brainstorm with his colleagues. He is also an accomplished concert pianist.

With the $30,000 prize, Hubert plans to start a venture that would design and develop electric, biological, and diagnostic products that are made on the micro and nano level.

While he's gung-ho about nanotechnology, he is concerned about the ethical implications of the technology, especially its potential misuses in genetics.

One of nanotechnology's biggest benefits is its use of few resources. Hubert has been using the same tiny vial of metal-particle fluid for 18 months. Someday, he believes nanoparticles will be able to assemble themselves in a gravity-free nanoworld.

"You need more and more people dedicated to this kind of pursuit," he says. But once people launch into the act of inventing, "it's self-perpetuating."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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