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The next few paragraphs provide a brief introduction to the core concepts of nanotechnology, followed by links to further reading.

Manufactured products are made from atoms. The properties of those products depend on how those atoms are arranged.

If we rearrange the atoms in coal we can make diamond.

If we rearrange the atoms in sand (and add a few other trace elements) we can make computer chips.

If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and air we can make potatoes.

Todays manufacturing methods are very crude at the molecular level. Casting, grinding, milling and even lithography move atoms in great thundering statistical herds. It's like trying to make things out of LEGO blocks with boxing gloves on your hands. Yes, you can push the LEGO blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can't really snap them together the way you'd like.

In the future, nanotechnology (more specifically, molecular nanotechnology or MNT) will let us take off the boxing gloves. We'll be able to snap together the fundamental building blocks of nature easily, inexpensively and in most of the ways permitted by the laws of nature. This will let us continue the revolution in computer hardware to its ultimate limits: molecular computers made from molecular logic gates connected by molecular wires. This new pollution free manufacturing technology will also let us inexpensively fabricate a cornucopia of new products that are remarkably light, strong, smart, and durable.

"Nanotechnology" has become something of a buzzword and is applied to many products and technologies that are often largely unrelated to molecular nanotechnology. While these broader usages encompass many valuable evolutionary improvements of existing technology, molecular nanotechnology will open up qualitatively new and exponentially expanding opportunities on a historically unprecedented scale. We will use the word "nanotechnology" to mean "molecular nanotechnology".

Nanotechnology will let us:

While technologies that lack one or more of these characteristics can be quite valuable, by definition they are not molecular nanotechnology. Molecular nanotechnology will let us build new and entirely novel molecular machines, like the planetary gear illustrated at left. Molecular nanotechnology will be the physical foundation for the Singularity.

 


There are two more concepts commonly associated with nanotechnology:


Clearly, we would be happy with any method that simultaneously achieved the first three objectives. However, this seems difficult without using some form of positional assembly (to get the right molecular parts in the right places) and some form of massive parallelism (to keep the costs down).

The need for positional assembly implies an interest in molecular robotics, e.g., robotic devices that are molecular both in their size and precision. These molecular scale positional devices are likely to resemble very small versions of their everyday macroscopic counterparts because both the macroscopic and the microscopic versions are trying to achieve the same objectives: the ability to flexibility and accurately hold, position and assemble parts. Positional assembly is frequently used in normal macroscopic manufacturing today, and provides tremendous advantages. Imagine trying to build a bicycle with both hands tied behind your back! The idea of manipulating and positioning individual atoms and molecules is still new and takes some getting used to. However, as Feynman said in a classic talk in 1959: "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom." We need to apply at the molecular scale the concept that has demonstrated its effectiveness at the macroscopic scale: making parts go where we want by putting them where we want.

A few robotic arms assembling molecular parts are going to take a long time to assemble anything large so we need lots of robotic arms: this is what we mean by massive parallelism. While earlier proposals achieved massive parallelism through self replication, today's "best guess" is that future molecular manufacturing systems will use some form of convergent assembly. In this process vast numbers of small parts are assembled by vast numbers of small robotic arms into larger parts, those larger parts are assembled by larger robotic arms into still larger parts, and so forth. If the size of the parts doubles at each iteration, we can go from one nanometer parts (a few atoms in size) to one meter parts (almost as big as a person) in only 30 steps. In this way, a nanofactory with many robotic arms in it can manufacture another nanofactory in a reasonable period of time.

Some Frequently Asked Questions

More Information

Nanofactory Collaboration
Singularity University
Foresight's nanotechnology resource page
E-Drexler.com
Nanodot

Books

Journals, publications and newsgroups

Conferences and events

The Feynman Prizes

Some information on the web

Drexler and Smalley debate feasibility of molecular nanotechnology in Chemical & Engineering News cover story.

Other sites

Some groups focused on nanotechnology

Other pages

This is the home page of Ralph C. Merkle's nanotechnology web site. It can be found on the web at http://www.zyvex.com/nano.