Nanotechnology is an anticipated manufacturing technology giving thorough, inexpensive control of the structure of matter through the manipulation of individual atoms. The term has been used to refer to any attempt to work at the submicron scale, but this site mainly covers the subset usually called molecular nanotechnology. Broadly speaking, the central thesis of nanotechnology is that almost any chemically stable structure can be built.
Presently, our manufacturers manipulate millions and billions of atoms at a time using conventional technologies. They manipulate these atoms by pounding, chipping and other large scale mechanical deformation. They cook up pure silicon and then etch patterns on its surface. All these techniques depend on large scale manipulation of atoms. Manipulating atoms today is like trying to build houses out of Lego blocks using boxing gloves. You can push the Lego blocks together, but it's extremely difficult to make them snap together. In the future, molecular nanotechnology will allow us to take off the gloves and manipulate atoms directly. This will allow very complete control over the placement of individual atoms.
Often, nanotechnology is referred to as "bottom-up" manufacturing. It aims to start with the smallest possible building materials, atoms, and use them to create a desired product. Working with individual atoms allows the atom-by-atom design of structures. In most chemical reactions, unwanted byproducts are an inevitable consequence of the lack of control over the bonding reactions. With nanotechnology, unwanted byproducts can be essentially eliminated.
Nanotechnology should allow us to get essentially every atom in the right place, make almost any structure consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry that we can specify in atomic detail, and have manufacturing costs not greatly exceeding the cost of the required raw materials and energy.
To get every atom in the right place, we need machines, often termed assemblers, that can force site-specific chemical reactions. To find structures consistent with the laws of chemistry and physics, we must use molecular modeling software. To reduce manufacturing costs, we may need to develop some type of replication for the assemblers.
A self replicating assembler would work by using its ability to make site-specific chemical reactions to make copies of itself. These copies can then make copies of themselves also, and so on. Eventually, the assembler multitude can then work in parallel to build molecular structures.
This massive parallelism leads to great economies of scale. These assemblers can be compared to the molecular machinery evident in cells today. For example, a seed can be seen as the instructions to create a vast structure of cellulose such as a redwood tree or in something as simple as a potato plant With the right instructions, an assembler could make products in an analogous way.
Nanotechnology has not yet been developed, but molecular models of possible nanomachines are becoming increasingly common. Often, these models analyze the basic tools necessary for a nanotechnological part that could go into tools such as an assembler. In the end, nanotechnology will be the culmination of the present goal in technology: increasing control over matter using better tools.
Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler
Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, K. Eric Drexler
(I recovered this background from a paper I wrote for an English class, but the sources section didn't survive the recovery--the sources listed are my best guesses based on reading the document. For more resources, go to the resources section.)
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