Just give me the FAQ
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:
- Achieve the ultimate in precision: almost every atom in exactly the right
- Make complex and molecularly intricate structures as easily and inexpensively
as simple materials.
- Reduce manufacturing costs to little more than the cost of the required
raw materials and energy.
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
- The best technical introductions are:
- A technical introduction to medical applications of nanotechnology:
- Feynman's remarkable technical introduction to physics:
- Further reading:
- Unbounding the Future, by K. Eric Drexler, Christine
Peterson and Gayle Pergamit (Quill 1991) provides a non-technical
discussion of what nanotechnology should let us do, using technically
feasible scenarios to clearly illustrate the possibilities. Now available on the web!
- Nano! by Ed Regis (Little, Brown 1995) is an engaging and entertaining book
that describes the researchers involved in this area, particularly Drexler,
and the reactions of different members of the scientific community to
Journals, publications and newsgroups
Conferences and events
The Feynman Prizes
Some information on the web
- The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Richard P. Feynman, still the best technical introduction to physics.
- There's plenty of room at the bottom, by Richard P. Feynman, is
a classic 1959 article which discusses the limits of miniaturization and forecast
the ability to "...arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all
the way down!"
- Molecular engineering: an approach to the development of general capabilities
for molecular manipulation, by K. Eric Drexler. The first journal article on molecular nanotechnology.
- A summary of Advanced automation for space missions, a 1980 NASA study which
provides a good introduction to self replicating systems.
design and simulations of nanoscale machines and assembly.
- That's impossible:
how good scientists reach bad conclusions
what will it mean?, IEEE Spectrum,
is coming, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,
September 11 2000
Designs for the Future
- A paper discussing NASA applications of molecular
nanotechnology from the computational nanotechnology project at NASA Ames.
- A Minimal Toolset for Positional Diamond Mechanosynthesis.
- A video introduction to diamond mechanosynthesis.
- Overview of self replication.
- Self replicating systems and molecular manufacturing.
- Self replicating systems and low cost manufacturing.
- Molecular manufacturing: adding positional control to chemical synthesis.
- It's a small, small, small, small world, published in MIT's
Technology Review, provides a general introduction to nanotechnology.
- A new family of six degree of freedom positional devices discusses
the Stewart platform, a simple robotic arm, and a new proposal: the double
tripod. It then analyzes and compares their positional accuracy in the face
of thermal noise at room temperature.
- Moriarty's talk in 2009 at SENS 4 on the feasibility
- Steps towards molecular manufacturing discusses the design of molecular
building blocks that could be used in conjunction with positional assembly
in solution (no vacuum) to build a useful range of non-diamondoid molecular
structures, including early assemblers.
- Computational nanotechnology discusses the idea of using computer
simulation to speed the development of this new technology.
- Theoretical studies of a hydrogen abstraction tool for nanotechnology is an ab initio study of a proposed molecular tool.
- A proof about molecular bearings.
- Design considerations for an assembler discusses the design of a
"simple" diamondoid assembler.
- Convergent assembly can make meter scale or larger products starting
with nanometer scale parts.
- Nanotechnology and medicine discusses some of the possible medical
applications of nanotechnology.
- Foresight issues press
release. "[Smalley] offers vehement opinions and colorful metaphors
but no relevant, defensible scientific arguments..."
analyzes the issues. "Smalley's position, which denies both the promise
and the peril of molecular assembly, will ultimately backfire"
- Howard Lovey's nano blog covers Clash
of the nanotech titans. "...I've covered local and national government
enough to confidently question the motives of those who side with the Smalley
- The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) issued a press
release. "If Smalley's goal is to demonstrate that machine-phase
chemistry is fundamentally flawed, he has not been effective..."
- The New
York Times :"The debate has caught widespread attention among nanotechnology
- A bibliography
on mechanosynthesis and proposal
for further research. Computational chemistry can validate the feasibility
of mechanosynthesis, what's needed is funding.
- Lawrence Lessig in Wired says: "Should science tell the truth? You'd think that question would
need no answer. But in the vortex known as Washington, DC, the obvious too
often gets bent."
- The Wikipedia
page on the Drexler-Smalley debate.
Some groups focused on nanotechnology
Gimzewski (formerly at IBM Zurich) made the world's smallest abacus as
well as positioned individual molecules at room temperature.
- The Rice University Nanotechnology Initiative
- The Laboratory for Molecular Robotics at USC is run by Aristides Requicha and is investigating the precise manipulation of atoms
- The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is interested in revolutionary new
ideas that "leap-frog" the evolution of current aerospace systems in a 10-40
year time horizon.
- Wilson Ho and his group show their atomically
resolved and precise work in pictures.
- Charles Lieber's group at Harvard.
- Scanning tunneling microscopy at IBM Almaden includes images of several structures
built by positioning individual atoms.
- The Materials and Process Simulation Center at Caltech, run by Bill Goddard,
has computationally modeled a broad range of structures,
including those relevant
to the development of nanotechnology. For example, Charles Musgrave and Jason Perry, then with Goddard's group, used ab initio
quantum chemistry to analyze a molecular tool which should be useful in the
synthesis of diamondoid structures (Theoretical studies of a hydrogen abstraction tool for nanotechnology,
Musgrave et. al., Nanotechnology 2 (1991) pages 187-195).
- NRL (Naval Research Laboratory) has
several groups pursuing various aspects of nanotechnology. The Chemistry
Division (among others) pursues research in nanostructures and nanofabrication.
- Ned Seeman's lab is working on nanotechnological applications of DNA, including
(for example) a truncated octahedron. The Stewart platform, a well known positional device, is basically an octahedron
six of whose struts can be adjusted in length. While DNA is not as stiff as
might be desired for molecular robotics applications, the ability to synthesize
an octahedral structure suggests that the self assembly of a simple positional
device is possible.
- Links to information about diamond CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition).
- Some constants, conversion
factors, etc. that are useful in nanotechnology.
- Geoff Leach's nano directory with information on Crystal Clear, a crystal editor with a
graphical user interface.
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Virtual Reality Nanomanipulator
- Some reactions to nanotechnology from the technical community.
- RAND has issued a report on The Potential of Nanotechnology for Molecular
- Nanotechnology in manufacturing by John Walker, part of a talk he gave in
1990 at the Autodesk technology forum.
- NIST has an interest in nanomanufacturing of atom-based standards.
- A macroscopic modular reconfigurable robot has been designed modeled and a prototype
built at Stanford.
- A new version of the planetary gear illustrated in Nanosystems on
pages 311 and 312.
- MITRE has a web page on nanoelectronics and nanocomputing.
- Reversible computing is also an important issue if we are to continue improving
computer performance. Molecular manufacturing will let us put a very large
number of logic elements into a very small volume, so if we are to avoid creating
a great deal of heat we'll need to keep the energy dissipation per
logic operation very low indeed!
- Visual images of
some proposed molecular machines.
- The slides for some talks
on nanotechnology are available.
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.