What is Nanotechnology?

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What is

A basic definition: Nanotechnology is the engineering of
functional systems at the molecular scale
. This covers both current work and
concepts that are more advanced.

In its original sense,
‘nanotechnology’ refers to the
projected ability to construct items from the bottom up, using techniques
and tools being developed today to make complete, high performance products.

With 15,342 atoms, this
parallel-shaft speed reducer gear is one of the largest nanomechanical devices
ever modeled in atomic detail.


The Meaning of Nanotechnology


K. Eric Drexler
(right) popularized the word ‘nanotechnology’ in the 1980’s,
he was talking about building machines on the scale of molecules, a few
wide—motors, robot arms, and even whole computers, far smaller than a
cell. Drexler spent the next ten years describing and analyzing these incredible
devices, and responding to accusations of science fiction. Meanwhile, mundane
technology was developing the ability to build simple structures on a molecular
scale. As nanotechnology became an accepted concept, the meaning of the word
shifted to encompass the simpler kinds of nanometer-scale technology. The

National Nanotechnology Initiative
was created to fund this kind of nanotech:
their definition includes anything smaller than 100 nanometers with novel

Much of the work being done today that carries the name ‘nanotechnology’ is not
nanotechnology in the original meaning of the word. Nanotechnology, in its
traditional sense, means building things from the bottom up, with atomic
precision. This theoretical capability was envisioned as early as 1959 by the
renowned physicist

I want to build a billion tiny factories, models
of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously. . .

The principles of physics, as far as I can see,
do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is
not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be
done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.

Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in

Based on Feynman’s vision of miniature factories using nanomachines to build
complex products, advanced nanotechnology (sometimes referred to as

molecular manufacturing)
will make use of positionally-controlled

guided by molecular machine systems. Formulating a roadmap for development
of this kind of nanotechnology is now an
objective of a broadly based

technology roadmap project
led by
Battelle (the manager of several U.S.
National Laboratories) and the
Foresight Nanotech Institute.

Shortly after this envisioned molecular machinery is created, it will result in
manufacturing revolution,
probably causing severe disruption. It also has serious economic, social, environmental, and military

Four Generations

Mihail (Mike) Roco of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative has

four generations
of nanotechnology development (see chart below). The
current era, as Roco depicts it, is that of passive nanostructures, materials
designed to perform one task. The second phase, which we are just entering,
introduces active nanostructures for multitasking; for example, actuators, drug
delivery devices, and sensors. The third generation is expected to begin
emerging around 2010 and will feature nanosystems with thousands of interacting
components. A few years after that, the first integrated nanosystems,
functioning (according to Roco) much like a mammalian cell with hierarchical
systems within systems, are expected to be developed.

Some experts may still insist that nanotechnology can refer to measurement or
visualization at the scale of 1-100 nanometers, but a consensus seems to be
forming around

the idea
(put forward by the NNI’s Mike Roco) that control and
restructuring of matter
at the nanoscale is a necessary element. CRN’s
definition is a bit more precise than that, but as work progresses through the
four generations of nanotechnology leading up to molecular nanosystems, which
will include molecular manufacturing,
we think it will become increasingly obvious that “engineering of functional
systems at the molecular scale” is what nanotech is really all about.

Conflicting Definitions

Unfortunately, conflicting definitions of nanotechnology and blurry
distinctions between significantly different fields have complicated the
effort to understand the differences and develop sensible, effective policy.

The risks of today’s nanoscale technologies (nanoparticle toxicity, etc.)
cannot be treated the same as the risks of longer-term
molecular manufacturing (economic disruption, unstable arms race, etc.). It is a
mistake to put them together in one basket for policy consideration—each is
important to address, but they offer different problems and will require
different solutions. As used
today, the term nanotechnology usually refers to a broad collection of mostly
disconnected fields. Essentially, anything sufficiently small and interesting
can be called nanotechnology. Much of it is harmless. For the rest, much of the
harm is of familiar and limited quality. But as we will see, molecular
manufacturing will bring unfamiliar risks and new classes of problems.

General-Purpose Technology

Nanotechnology is sometimes referred to as a general-purpose technology. That’s
because in its advanced form it will have significant impact on almost all
industries and all areas of society. It will offer better built, longer lasting,
cleaner, safer, and smarter
for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation,
agriculture, and for industry in

Imagine a medical device
that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of
cancerous cells before they can spread. Or a box no larger than a sugar cube
that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Or materials much
lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength.
— U.S. National
Science Foundation

Dual-Use Technology

Like electricity or
computers before it, nanotech will offer greatly improved efficiency in almost
every facet of life. But as a general-purpose technology, it will be dual-use,
meaning it will have many commercial uses and it also will have many military
uses—making far more powerful weapons and tools of surveillance. Thus it
represents not only wonderful
benefits for humanity,
but also grave risks.

A key understanding of nanotechnology is that it offers not just better
products, but a vastly improved manufacturing process. A computer can make
copies of data files—essentially as many copies as you want at little or no
cost. It may be only a matter of time until the building of products becomes
as cheap as the copying of files. That’s the real meaning of nanotechnology, and
why it is sometimes seen as “the next industrial revolution.”

My own
judgment is that the nanotechnology revolution has the potential to change
America on a scale equal to, if not greater than, the computer revolution.

— U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

The power of
nanotechnology can be encapsulated in an apparently simple device called a
personal nanofactory
may sit on your countertop or desktop. Packed with miniature chemical
processors, computing, and robotics, it will produce a wide-range of items
quickly, cleanly, and inexpensively, building products directly from blueprints.

Click to enlarge

Artist’s Conception of a Personal Nanofactory

Courtesy of John Burch,

Lizard Fire Studios
(3D Animation, Game Development)


Nanotechnology not only
will allow making many high-quality products at very low cost, but it will allow
making new nanofactories at the same low cost and at the same rapid speed.
This unique (outside of biology, that is) ability to reproduce its own means of
production is why nanotech is said to be an exponential technology. It
represents a manufacturing system that will be able to make more manufacturing
systems—factories that can build factories—rapidly, cheaply, and cleanly. The
means of production will be able to reproduce exponentially, so in just a few
weeks a few nanofactories conceivably could become billions. It is a
revolutionary, transformative, powerful, and potentially very

How soon will all this come about? Conservative estimates usually say 20 to 30
years from now, or even much later than that. However, CRN is concerned that it
may occur
sooner, quite possibly
within the next decade. This is because of the rapid progress being made in
enabling technologies, such as optics, nanolithography, mechanochemistry and 3D
prototyping. If it does arrive that soon, we may not be adequately
prepared, and the
consequences could be severe.

We believe it’s not too early to begin asking some tough
questions and facing the issues:

bullet Who will own the
bullet Will it be heavily
restricted, or widely available? 
bullet What will it do to the
gap between rich and poor? 
bullet How can dangerous
apons be controlled, and perilous arms races be prevented? 

Many of these questions
were first raised over a decade ago, and have not yet been answered. If the
questions are not answered with deliberation, answers will evolve independently
and will take us by surprise; the surprise is likely to be unpleasant. 

It is difficult to say for sure how soon this technology will mature, partly
because it’s possible (especially in countries that do not have open societies)
that clandestine military or industrial development programs have been going on
for years without our knowledge.

We cannot say with certainty that full-scale nanotechnology will not be
developed with the next ten years, or even five years. It may take longer than
that, but prudence—and possibly our survival—demands that we
prepare now for
the earliest plausible development scenario.

Background on Nanotechnology:

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