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Unbounding the Future:

the Nanotechnology Revolution

Chapter 3
Bottom-Up Technology

The tour in the last chapter showed the sizes, forces, and general nature of objects in the molecular world. Building on this, we can get a better picture of where developments seem to be leading, a better picture of molecular manufacturing itself. To show the sizes, forces, and general nature of things in molecular manufacturing, we first invite the reader (and the reader's inquisitive alter ego) to take a second and final tour before returning to the world of present-day research. As before, the pre-1990 history is accurate, and the science isn't fiction.

The Silicon Valley Faire

The tour of the molecular world showed some products of molecular manufacturing, but didn't show how they were made. The technologies you remember from the old days have mostly been replaced—but how did this happen? The Silicon Valley Faire is advertised as "An authentic theme park capturing life, work, and play in the early Breakthrough years." Since "work" must include manufacturing, it seems worth a visit.

A broad dome caps the park —"To fully capture the authentic sights, sounds, and smells of the era," the tourguide politely says. Inside, the clothes and hairstyles, the newspaper headlines, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, all look much as they did before your long nap. A light haze obscures the buildings on the far side of the dome, your eyes burn slightly, and the air smells truly authentic.

Pocket Libraries

The Nanofabricators, Inc., plant offers the main display of early nanotechnology. As you near the building, the tourguide mentions that this is indeed the original manufacturing plant, given landmark status over twenty years ago, then made the centerpiece of the Silicon Valley Faire ten years later, when . . . With a few taps, you reset the pocket tourguide to speak up less often.

As people file into the Nanofabricator plant, there's a moment of hushed quiet, a sense of walking into history. Nanofabricators: home of the SuperChip, the first mass-market product of nanotechnology. It was the huge memory capacity of SuperChips that made possible the first Pocket Library.

This section of the plant now houses a series of displays, including working replicas of early products. Picking up a Pocket Library, you find that it's not only the size of a wallet, but about the same weight. Yet it has enough memory to record every volume in the Library of Congress–something like a million times the capacity of a personal computer from 1990. It opens with a flip, the two-panel screen lights up, and a world of written knowledge is at your fingertips. Impressive.

"Wow, can you believe these things?" says another tourist as he fingers a Pocket Library. "Hardly any video, no 3-D–just words, sound, and flat pictures. And the cost! I wouldn't've bought `em for my kids at that price!"

Your tourguide quietly states the price: about what you remember for a top-of-the-line TV set from 1990. This isn't the cheap manufacturing promised by mature nanotechnology, but it seems like a pretty good price for a library. Hmm . . . how did they work out the copyrights and royalties? There's a lot more to this product than just the technology . . .


The next room displays more technology. Here in the workroom where SuperChips were first made, early nanotech manufacturing is spread out on display. The whole setup is surprisingly quiet and ordinary. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, chip plants had carefully controlled clean rooms with gowns and masks on workers and visitors, special workstations, and carefully crafted air flows to keep dust away from products. This room has none of that. It's even a little grubby.

In the middle of a big square table are a half-dozen steel tanks, about the size and shape of old-fashioned milk cans. Each can has a different label identifying its contents: MEMORY BLOCKS, DATA-TRANSMISSION BLOCKS, INTERFACE BLOCKS. These are the parts needed for building up the chip. Clear plastic tubes, carrying clear and tea-colored liquids, emerge from the mouths of the milk cans and drape across the table. The tubes end in fist-sized boxes mounted above shallow dishes sitting in a ring around the cans. As the different liquids drip into each dish, a beater like a kitchen mixer swirls the liquid. In each dish, nanomachines are building SuperChips.

A Nanofab "engineer," dressed in period clothing complete with name badge, is setting up a dish to begin building a new chip. "This," he says, holding up a blank with a pair of tweezers, "is a silicon chip like the ones made with pre-breakthrough technology. Companies here in this valley made chips like these by melting silicon, freezing it into lumps, sawing the lumps into slices, polishing the slices, and then going through a long series of chemical and photographic steps. When they were done, they had a pattern of lines and blobs of different materials on the surface. Even the smallest of these blobs contained billions of atoms, and it took several blobs working together to store a single bit of information. A chip this size, the size of your fingernail, could store only a fraction of a billion bits. Here at Nanofab, we used bare silicon chips as a base for building up nanomemory. The picture on the wall here shows the surface of a blank chip: no transistors, no memory circuits, just fine wires to connect up with the nanomemory we built on top. The nanomemory, even in the early days, stored thousands of billions of bits. And we made them like this, but a thousand at a time–" He places the chip in the dish, presses a button, and the dish begins to fill with liquid.

"A few years latter," he adds, "we got rid of the silicon chips entirely"–he props up a sign saying THIS CHIP BUILD BEGAN AT: 2:15 P.M., ESTIMATED COMPLETION TIME: 1:00 A.M.–" and we sped up the construction process by a factor of a thousand."

The chips in the dishes all look pretty much the same except for color. The new chip looks like dull metal. The only difference you can see in the older chips, further along in the process, is a smooth rectangular patch covered by a film of darker material. An animated flowchart on the wall shows how layer upon layer of nanomemory building blocks are grabbed from solution and laid down on the surface to make that film. The tourguide explains that the energy for this process, like the energy for molecular machines within cells, comes from dissolved chemicals–from oxygen and fuel molecules. The total amount of energy needed here is trivial, because the amount of product is trivial: at the end of the process, the total thickness of nanomemory structure–the memory store for a Pocket Library–amounts to one-tenth the thickness of a sheet of paper, spread over an area smaller than a postage stamp.

Molecular Assembly

The animated flowchart showed nanomemory building blocks as big things containing about a hundred thousand atoms apiece (it takes a moment to remember that this is still submicroscopic). The build process in the dishes stacked these blocks to make the memory film on the SuperChip, but how were the blocks themselves built? The hard part in this molecular-manufacturing business has got to be at the bottom of the whole process, at the stage where molecules are put together to make large, complex parts.

The Silicon Valley Faire offers simulations of this molecular assembly process, and at no extra charge. From the tourguide, you learn that modern assembly processes are complex; that earlier processes–like those used by Nanofabricators, Inc. –used clever-but-obscure engineering tricks; and that the simplest, earliest concepts were never built. Why not begin at the beginning? A short walk takes you to the Museum of Antique Concepts, the first wing of the Museum of Molecular Manufacturing.

A peek inside the first hall shows several people strolling around wearing loosely fitting jumpsuits with attached goggles and gloves, staring at nothing and playing mime with invisible objects. Oh well, why not join the fools' parade? Stepping through the doorway while wearing the suit is entirely different. The goggles show a normal world outside the door and a molecular world inside. Now you, too, can see and feel the exhibit that fills the hall. It's much like the earlier simulated molecular world: it shares the standard settings for size, strength, and speed. Again, atoms seem 40 million times larger, about the size of your fingertips. This simulation is a bit less thorough than the last was–you can feel simulated objects, but only with your gloved hands. Again, everything seems to be made of quivering masses of fused marbles, each an atom.

"Welcome," says the tourguide, "to a 1990 concept for a molecular-manufacturing plant. These exploratory engineering designs were never intended for actual use, yet they demonstrate the basics of molecular manufacturing: making parts, testing them, and assembling them."

Machinery fills the hall. Overall, the sight is reminiscent of an automated factory of the 1980s or 1990s. It seems clear enough what must be going on: Big machines stand beside a conveyor belt loaded with half-finished-looking blocks of some material (this setup looks much like Figure 2); the machines must do some sort of work on the blocks. Judging by the conveyor belt, the blocks eventually move from one arm to the next until they turn a corner and enter the next hall.


A factory–large enough to make over 10 million nanocomputers per day would fit on the edge one of today's integrated circuits. Inset shows an assembler arm together with workpiece on a conveyor belt.

Since nothing is real, the exhibit can't be damaged, so you walk up to a machine and give it a poke. It seems as solid as the wall of the nanocomputer in the previous tour. Suddenly, you notice something odd: no bombarding air molecules and no droplets of water–in fact, no loose molecules anywhere. Every atom seems to be part of a mechanical system, quivering thermal vibration, but otherwise perfectly controlled. Everything here is like the nanocomputer or like the tough little gear; none of it resembles the loosely coiled protein or the roiling mass of the living cell.

The conveyor belt seems motionless. At regular intervals along the belt are blocks of material under construction: workpieces. The nearest block is about a hundred marble-bumps wide, so it must contain something like 100 x 100 x 100 atoms, a full million. This block looks strangely familiar, with its rods, crank, and the rest. It's a nanocomputer–or rather, a blocklike part of a nanocomputer still under construction.

Standing alongside the pieces of nanocomputer on the conveyor belt, dominating the hall, is a row of huge mechanisms. Their trunks rise from the floor, as thick as old oaks. Even though they bend over, they rear overhead. "Each machine," your tourguide says, "is the arm of a general-purpose molecular assembler.

One assembler arm is bent over with its tip pressed to a block on the conveyor belt. Walking closer, you see molecular assembly in action. The arm ends in a fist-sized knob with a few protruding marbles, like knuckles. Right now, two quivering marbles–atoms–are pressed into a small hollow in the block. As you watch, the two spheres shift, snapping into place in the block with a quick twitch of motion: a chemical reaction. The assembler arm just stands there, nearly motionless. The fist has lost two knuckles, and the block of nanocomputer is two atoms larger.

The tourguide holds forth: "This general-purpose assembler concept resembles, in essence, the factory robots of the 1980s. It is a computer-controlled mechanical arm that moves molecular tools according to a series of instructions. Each tool is like a single-shot stapler or rivet gun. It has a handle for the assembler to grab and comes loaded with a little bit of matter–a few atoms–which it attaches to the workpiece by a chemical reaction." This is like the rejoining of the protein chain in the earlier tour.

Molecular Precision

The atoms seemed to jump into place easily enough; can they jump out of place just as easily? By now the assembler arm has crept back from the surface, leaving a small gap, so you can reach in and poke at the newly added atoms. Poking and prying do no good: When you push as hard as you can (with your simulated fingers as strong as steel), the atoms don't budge by a visible amount. Strong molecular bonds hold them in place.

Your pocket tourguide–which has been applying the power of a thousand 1990s supercomputers to the task of deciding when to speak up–remarks, "Molecular bonds hold things together. In strong, stable materials atoms are either bonded, or they aren't, with no possibilities in between. Assemblers work by making and breaking bonds, so each step either succeeds perfectly or fails completely. In pre-breakthrough manufacturing, parts were always made and put together with small inaccuracies. These could add up to wreck product quality. At the molecular scale, these problems vanish. Since each step is perfectly precise, little errors can't add up. The process either works, or it doesn't."

But what about those definite, complete failures? Fired by scientific curiosity, you walk to the next assembler, grab the tip, and shake it. Almost nothing happens. When you shove as hard as you can, the tip moves by about one-tenth of an atomic diameter, then springs back. "Thermal vibrations can cause mistakes by causing parts to come together and form bonds in the wrong place," the tourguide remarks. "Thermal vibrations make floppy objects bend further than stiff ones, and so these assembler arms were designed to be thick and stubby to make them very stiff. Error rates can be kept to one in a trillion, and so small products can be perfectly regular and perfectly identical. Large products can be almost perfect, having just a few atoms out of place." This should mean high reliability. Oddly, most of the things you've been seeing outside have looked pretty ordinary–not slick, shiny, and perfect, but rough and homey. They must have been manufactured that way, or made by hand. Slick, shiny things must not impress anyone anymore.

Molecular Robotics

By now, the assembler arm has moved by several atom-widths. Through the translucent sides of the arm you can see that the arm is full of mechanisms: twirling shafts, gears, and large, slowly turning rings that drive the rotation and extension of joints along the trunk. The whole system is a huge, articulated robot arm. The arm is big because the smallest parts are the size of marbles, and the machinery inside that makes it move and bend has many, many parts. Inside, another mechanism is at work: The arm now ends in a hole, and you can see the old, spent molecular tool being retracted through a tube down the middle.

Patience, patience. Within a few minutes, a new tool is on its way back up the tube. Eventually, it reaches the end. Shafts twirl, gears turn, and clamps lock the tool in position. Other shafts twirl, and the arm slowly leans up against the workpiece again at a new site. Finally, with a twitch of motion, more atoms jump across, and the block is again just a little bit bigger. The cycle begins again. This huge arm seems amazingly slow, but the standard simulation settings have shifted speeds by a factor of over 400 million. A few minutes of simulation time correspond to less than a millionth of a second of real time, so this stiff, sluggish arm is completing about a million operations per second.

Peering down at the very base of the assembler arm, you can get a glimpse of yet more assembler-arm machinery underneath the floor: Electric motors spin, and a nanocomputer chugs away, rods pumping furiously. All these rods and gears move quickly, sliding and turning many times for every cycle of the ponderous arm. This seems inefficient; the mechanical vibrations must generate a lot of heat, so the electric motors must draw a lot of power. Having a computer control each arm is a lot more awkward now than it was in pre-breakthrough years. Back then, a robot arm was big and expensive and a computer was a cheap chip; now the computer is bigger than the arm. There must be a better way–but then, this is the Museum of Antique Concepts.

Building-Blocks into Buildings

Where do the blocks go, once the assemblers have finished with them? Following the conveyor belt past a dozen arms, you stroll to the end of the hall, turn the corner, and find yourself on a balcony overlooking a vaster hall beyond. Here, just off the conveyor belt, a block sits in a complex fixture. Its parts are moving, and an enormous arm looms over it like a construction crane. After a moment, the tourguide speaks up and confirms your suspicion: "After manufacturing, each block is tested. Large arms pick up properly made blocks. In this hall, the larger arms assemble almost a thousand blocks of various kinds to make a complete nanocomputer.

The grand hall has its own conveyor belt, bearing a series of partially completed nanocomputers. Arrayed along this grand belt is a row of grand arms, able to swing to and fro, to reach down to lesser conveyor belts, pluck million-atom blocks from testing stations, and plug them into the grand workpieces, the nanocomputers under construction. The belt runs the length of the hall, and at the end, finished nanocomputers turn a corner–to a yet-grander hall beyond?

After gazing at the final-assembly hall for several minutes, you notice that nothing seems to have moved. Mere patience won't do: at the rate the smaller arms moved in the hall behind you, each block must take months to complete, and the grand block-handling arms are taking full advantage of the leisure this provides. Building a computer, start to finish, might take a terribly long time. Perhaps as long as the blink of an eye.

Molecular assemblers build blocks that go to block assemblers. The block assemblers build computers, which go to system assemblers, which build systems, which–at least one path from molecules to large products seems clear enough. If a car were assembled by normal-sized robots from a thousand pieces, each piece having been assembled by smaller robots from a thousand smaller pieces, and so on, down and down, then only ten levels of assembly process would separate cars from molecules. Perhaps, around a few more corners and down a few more ever-larger halls, you would see a post-breakthrough car in the making, with unrecognizable engine parts and comfortable seating being snapped together in a century-long process in a hall so vast that the Pacific Ocean would be a puddle in the corner . . .

Just ten steps in size; eight, starting with blocks as big as the ones made in the hall behind you. The molecular world seems closer, viewed this way.

Molecular Processing

Stepping back into that hall, you wonder how the process begins. In every cycle of their sluggish motion, each molecular assembler gets a fresh tool through a tube from somewhere beneath the floor, and that somewhere is where the story of molecular precision begins. And so you ask, "Where do the tools come from?", and the tourguide replies, "You might want to take the elevator to your left."

Stepping out of the elevator and into the basement, you see a wide hall full of small conveyor belts and pulleys; a large pipe runs down the middle. A plaque on the wall says, "Mechanochemical processing concept, circa 1990." As usual, all the motions seem rather slow, but in this hall everything that seems designed to move is visibly in motion. The general flow seems to be away from the pipe, through several steps, and then up through the ceiling toward the hall of assemblers above.

After walking over to the pipe, you can see that it is nearly transparent. Inside is a seething chaos of small molecules: the wall of the pipe is the boundary between loose molecules and controlled ones, but the loose molecules are well confined. In this simulation, your fingertips are like small molecules. No matter how hard you push, there's no way to drive your finger through the wall of the pipe. Every few paces along the pipe a fitting juts out, a housing with a mechanically driven rotating thing, exposed to the liquid inside the pipe, but also exposed to a belt running over one of the pulleys, embedded in the housing. It's hard to see exactly what is happening.

The tourguide speaks up, saying, "Pockets on the rotor capture single molecules from the liquid in the pipe. Each rotor pocket has a size and shape that fits just one of the several different kinds of molecule in the liquid, so the process is rather selective. Captured molecules are then pushed into the pockets on the belt that's wrapped over the pulley there, then–"

"Enough," you say. Fine, it singles out molecules and sticks them into this maze of machinery. Presumably, the machines can sort the molecules to make sure the right kinds go to the right places.

The belts loop back and forth carrying big, knobby masses of molecules. Many of the pulleys–rollers?–press two belts together inside a housing with auxiliary rollers. While you are looking at one of these, the tourguide says, "Each knob on a belt is a mechanochemical-processing device. When two knobs on different belts are pressed together in the right way, they are designed to transfer molecular fragments from one to another by means of a mechanically forced chemical reaction. In this way, small molecules are broken down, recombined, and finally joined to molecular tools of the sort used in the assemblers in the hall above. In this device here, the rollers create a pressure equal to the pressure found halfway to the center of the Earth, speeding a reaction that–"

"Fine, fine," you say. Chemists in the old days managed to make amazingly complex molecules just by mixing different chemicals together in solution in the right order under the right conditions. Here, molecules can certainly be brought together in the right order, and the conditions are much better controlled. It stands to reason that this carefully designed maze of pulleys and belts can do a better job of molecule processing than a test tube full of disorganized liquid ever could. From a liquid, through a sorter, into a mill, and out as tools: this seems to be the story of molecule processing. All the belts are loops, so the machinery just goes around and around, carrying and transforming molecular parts.

Beyond Antiques

This system of belts seems terribly simple and efficient, compared to the ponderous arms driven by frantic computers in the hall above. Why stop with making simple tools? You must have muttered this, because the tourguide speaks up again and says, "The Special-Assembler Exhibit shows another early molecular-manufacturing concept that uses the principles of this molecule-processing system to build large, complex objects. If a system is building only a single product, there is no need to have computers and flexible arms move parts around. It is far more efficient to build a machine in which everything just moves on belts at a constant speed, adding small parts to larger ones and then bringing the larger ones together as you saw at the end of the hall above."

This does seem like a more sensible way to churn out a lot of identical products, but it sounds like just more of the same. Gears like fused marbles, belts like coarse beadwork, drive shafts, pulleys, machines and more machines. In a few places, marbles snap into new patterns to prepare a tool or make a product. Roll, roll, chug, chug, pop, snap, then roll and chug some more.

As you leave the simulation hall, you ask, "Is there anything important I've missed in this molecular manufacturing tour?"

The tourguide launches into a list: "Yes–the inner workings of assembler arms, with drive shafts, worm gears, and harmonic drives; the use of Diels-Alder reactions, interfacial free-radial chain reactions, and dative-bond formation to join blocks together in the larger-scale stages of assembly; different kinds of mechanochemical processing for preparing reactive molecular tools; the use of staged-cascade methods in providing feed-molecules of the right kinds with near-perfect reliability; the differences between efficient and inefficient steps in molecular processing; the use of redundancy to ensure reliability in large systems despite sporadic damage; modern methods of building large objects from smaller blocks; modern electronic nanocomputers; modern methods for–"

"Enough!" you say, and the tourguide falls silent as you pitch it into a recycling bin. A course in molecular manufacturing isn't what you're looking for right now; the general idea seems clear enough. It's time to take another look at the world on a more normal scale. Houses, roads, buildings, even the landscape looked different out there beyond the Faire dome–less crowded, paved, and plowed than you remember. But why? The history books (well, they're more than just books) say that molecular manufacturing made a big difference; perhaps now the changes will make more sense. Yes, it's time to leave.

As you toss your goggled, gloved jumpsuit into another bin, a striking dark-haired woman is taking a fresh one from a rack. She wears a jacket emblazoned with the name "Desert Rose NanoManufacturing."

"How'd you like it?" she asks with a smile.

"Pretty amazing," you say.

"Yes," she agrees. "I saw this sim back when I was taking my first molecular-manufacturing class. I swore I'd never design anything so clunky! This whole setup really brings back the memories–I can't wait to see if it's as crude as I remember." She steps into the simulation hall and closes the door.

Crude Technology

As the Silicon Valley Faire scenario shows, molecular manufacturing will work much like ordinary manufacturing, but with devices built so small that a single loose molecule of pollutant would be like a brick heaved into a machine tool. John Walker of Autodesk, a leading company in computer-aided design, observes that nanotechnology and today's crude methods are very different: "Technology has never had this kind of precise control; all of our technologies today are bulk technologies. We take a big chunk of stuff and hack away at it until we're left with the object we want, or we assemble parts from components without regard to structure at the molecular level."

[See Nanotechnology in Manufacturing, by John Walker]

Molecular manufacturing will orchestrate atoms into products of symphonic complexity, but modern manufacturing mostly makes loud noises. These figurative noises are sometimes all too literal: A crack in a metal forging grows under stress, a wing fails, and a passenger jet crashes from the sky. A chemical reaction goes out of control, heat and pressure build, and a poisonous blast shakes the countryside. A lifesaving product cannot be made, a heart fails, and a hospital's heart-monitoring machine signals the end with a high-pitched wail.

Today, we make many things from metal, by machining. From the perspective of our standard, simulated molecular world, a typical metal part is a piece of terrain many days' journey across. The metal itself is weak compared to the bonds of the protein chain or other tough nanomechanisms: solid steel is no stronger than your simulated fingers, and the atoms on its surface can be pushed around with your bare hands. Standing on a piece of metal being machined in a lathe, you would see a cutting blade crawl past a few times per year, like a majestic plough the size of a mountain range. Each pass would rip up a strip of the metal landscape, leaving a rugged valley broad enough to hold a town. This is machining from a nanotechnological perspective: a process that hacks crude shapes from intrinsically weak materials.

Today, electronics are made from silicon chips. We have already seen the landscape of a finished chip. During manufacturing, metal features would be built up by a centuries-long drizzle of metal-atom rain, and hollows would be formed by a centuries-long submergence in an acid sea. From the perspective of our simulation, the whole process would resemble geology as much as manufacturing, with the slow layering of sedimentary deposits alternating with ages of erosion. The term nanotechnology is sometimes used as a name for small-scale microtechnology, but the difference between molecular manufacturing and this sort of microlandscaping is like the difference between watchmaking and bulldozing.

Today, chemists make molecules by solution chemistry. We have seen what a liquid looks like in our first simulation, with molecules bumping and tumbling and wandering around. Just as assemblers can make chemical reactions occur by bringing molecules together mechanically, so reactions can occur when molecules bump at random through thermal vibration and motion in a liquid. Indeed, much of what we know today about chemical reactions comes from observing this process. Chemists make large molecules by mixing small molecules in a liquid. By choosing the right molecules and conditions, they can get a surprising measure of control over the results: only some pairs of molecules will react, and then only in certain ways.

Doing chemistry this way, though, is like trying to assemble a model car by putting the pieces in a box and shaking. This will only work with cleverly shaped pieces, and it is hard to make anything very complex. Chemists today consider it challenging to make a precise, three-dimensional structure having a hundred atoms, and making one with a thousand atoms is a great accomplishment. Molecular manufacturing, in contrast, will routinely assemble millions or billions. The basic chemical principles will be the same, but control and reliability will be vastly greater. It is the difference between throwing things together blindly and putting them together with a watchmaker's care.

Technology today doesn't permit thorough control of the structure of matter. Molecular manufacturing will. Today's technologies have given us computers, spacecraft, indoor plumbing, and the other wonders of the modern age. Tomorrow's will do much more, bringing change and choices.

Simple Matter, Smart Matter

Today's technology mostly works with matter in a few basic forms: gases, liquids, and solids. Though each form has many varieties, all are comparatively simple.

Gases, as we've seen, consist of molecules ricocheting through space. A volume of gas will push against its walls and, if not walled in, expand without limit. Gases can supply certain raw materials for nanomachines, and nanomachines can be used to remove pollutants from air and turn them into something else. Gases lack structure, so they will remain simple.

Liquids are somewhat like gases, but their molecules cling together to form a coherent blob that won't expand beyond a certain limit. Liquids will be good sources of raw materials for nanomachines because they are denser and can carry a wide range of fuels and raw materials in solution (the pipe in the molecular-processing hall contained liquid). Nanomachines can clean up polluted water as easily as air, removing and transforming noxious molecules. Liquids have more structure than gases, but nanotechnology will have its greatest application to solids.

Solids are diverse. Solid butter consists of molecules stronger than steel, but the molecules cling to one another by the weaker forces of molecular stickiness. A little heat increases thermal vibrations and makes the solid structure disintegrate into a blob of liquid. Butterlike materials would make poor nanomachines. Metals consist of atoms held together by stronger forces, and so they can be structurally stronger and able to withstand higher temperatures. The forces are not very directional, though, and so planes of metal atoms can slip past one another under pressure; this is why spoons bend, rather than break. This ability to slip makes metals less brittle and easier to shape (with crude technology), but it also weakens them. Only the strongest, hardest, highest-melting-point metals are worth considering as parts of nanomachines.


On the left is graphite–the material called "lead" in pencils–made of carbon atoms. On right is diamond–the same atoms arranged in a different pattern.

Diamond consists of carbon atoms held together by strong, directional bonds, like the bonds down the axis of a protein chain. (See Figure 3.) These directional bonds make it hard for planes of atoms to slip past one another, making diamond (and similar materials) very strong indeed–ten to a hundred times stronger than steel. But the planes can't easily slip, so when the material fails, it doesn't bend, it breaks. Tiny cracks can easily grow, making a large object seem weak. Glass is a similar material: glass windows seem weak–and a scratch makes glass far weaker–yet thin, perfect glass fibers are widely used to make composite materials stronger and lighter than steel. Nanotechnology will be able to build with diamond and similar strong materials, making small, flawless fibers and components.

In engineering today, diamond is just beginning to be used. Japan has pioneered a technology for making diamond at low pressure, and a Japanese company sells a speaker with excellent high-frequency response–the speaker cone is reinforced with a light, stiff film of diamond. Diamond is extraordinary stuff, made from cheap materials like natural gas. U.S. companies are scrambling to catch up.

All these materials are simple. More complex structures lead to more complex properties, and begin to give some hint of what molecular manufacturing will mean for materials.

What if you strung carbon atoms in long chains with side-groups, a bit like a protein chain, and linked them into a big three-dimensional mesh? If the chains were kinked so that they couldn't pack tightly, they would coil up and flop around almost like molecules in a liquid, yet the strong bonds would keep the overall mesh intact. Pulling the whole network would tend to straighten the chains, but their writhing motions would tend to coil them back up. This sort of network has been made: it is called rubber.

Rubber is weak mostly because the network is irregular. When stretched, first one chain breaks, then another, because they don't all become taut at the same time to share and divide the load. A more regular mesh would be as soft as rubber at first, but when stretched to the limit would become stronger than steel. Molecular manufacturing could make such stuff.

The natural world contains a host of good materials–cellulose and lignin in wood, stronger-than-steel proteins in spider's silk, hard ceramics in grains of sand, and more. Many products of molecular manufacturing will be designed for great durability, like sand. Others will be designed to fall apart easily for easy recycling, like wood. Some may be designed for uses where they may be thrown away. In this last category, nanotailored biodegradables will shine. With care, almost any sort of product from a shoe to computer-driven nanomachines can be made to last for a good long time, and then unzip fairly rapidly and very thoroughly into molecules and other bits of stuff all of kinds normally found in the soil.

This gives only a hint of what molecular manufacturing will make possible by giving better control of the structure of solid matter. The most impressive applications will not be superstrong structural materials, improved rubber, and simple biodegradable materials: these are uniform, repetitive structures not greatly different from ordinary materials. These materials are "stupid." When pushed, they resist, or they stretch and bounce back. If you shine light on them, they transmit it, reflect it, or absorb it. But molecular manufacturing can do much more. Rather than heaping up simple molecules, it can build materials from trillions of motors, ratchets, light-emitters, and computers.

Muscle is smarter than rubber because it contains molecular machines: it can be told to contract. The products of molecular manufacturing can include materials able to change shape, color, and other properties on command. When a dust mote can contain a supercomputer, materials can be made smart, medicine can be made sophisticated, and the world will be a different place. Smart materials will be discussed in Chapter 8.

Ideas and Criticisms

We've just seen a picture of molecular manufacturing (of one sort) and of what it can do (in sketchy outline). Now let's look at the idea of nanotechnology itself: Where did it come from, and what do the experts think of it? The next chapter will have more to say on the latter point, presenting the thoughts of researchers who are advancing the field through their own work.


The idea of molecular nanotechnology, like most ideas, has roots stretching far back in time. In ancient Greece, Democritus suggested that the world was built of durable, invisible particles–atoms, the building blocks of solid objects, liquids, and gases. In the last hundred years, scientists have learned more and more about these building blocks, and chemists have learned more and more ways to combine them to make new things. Decades ago, biologists found molecules that do complex things; they termed them "molecular machines."

Physicist Richard Feynman was a visionary of miniaturization who pointed toward something like molecular nanotechnology: on December 29, 1959, in an after-dinner talk at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society, he proposed that large machines could be used to make smaller machines, which could make still smaller ones, working in a top-down fashion from the macroscale to the microscale. At the end of his talk, he painted a vision of moving individual atoms, pointing out, "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom." He pictured making molecules, pointing clearly in the direction taken by the modern concept of nanotechnology: "But it is interesting that it would be, in principle, possible (I think) for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance the chemist writes down. Give the orders, and the physicist synthesizes it. How? Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance."

Despite this clear signpost pointing to a potentially revolutionary area, no one filled the conceptual gap between miniature machines and chemical substances. There was no clear concept of making molecular machines able to build more such machines, no notion of controllable molecular manufacturing. With hindsight, one wonders why the gap took so long to fill. Feynman himself didn't follow it up, saying that the ability to maneuver atoms one by one "will really be useless" since chemists would come up with traditional, bulk-process ways to make new chemical substances. For a researcher whose main interest was physics, he had contributed much just by placing the signpost: it was up to others to move forward. Instead, the idea of molecular machines for molecular manufacturing didn't appear for decades.

From today's viewpoint, molecular nanotechnology looks more like an extension of chemistry than like an extension of miniaturization. A mechanical engineer, looking at nanotechnology, might ask, "How can machines be made so small?" A chemist, though, would ask, "How can molecules be made so large?" The chemist has the better question. Nanotechnology isn't primarily about miniaturizing machines, but about extending precise control of molecular structure to larger and larger scales. Nanotechnology is about making (precise) things big.

Technology Function Molecular Examples
struts, beams, casins transmit force, hold positions cell walls, microtubules
cables transmit tension collagen, silk
fasteners, glue connect parts intermolecular forces
solenoids, actuators move things muscle actin, myosin
motors turn shafts flagellar motor
drive shafts transmit torque bacterial flagella
bearings support moving parts single bonds
clamps hold workpieces enzymatic binding sites
tools modify workpieces enzymes, reactive molecules
production lines control devices enzyme systems, ribosomes
numerical control systems store and read programs genetic system
Adapted from K. E. Drexler, Molecular engineering: An approach to the development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 78 (1981) pp. 5275-78.

Nature gives the most obvious clues to how this can be done, and it was the growing scientific literature on natural molecular machines that led one of the present authors (Drexler) to propose molecular nanotechnology of the sort described here. A strategy to reach the goal was part of the concept: Build increasingly complex molecular machinery from simpler pieces, including molecular machines able to build more molecular machines. And the motivation for studying this, and publishing? Largely the fear of living in a world that might rush into the new technology blindly, with ugly consequences.

This concept and initial exploratory work started in early 1977 at MIT; the first technical publication came in 1981 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For years, MIT remained the center of thinking on nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing: in 1985, the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group was formed; it soon initiated an annual lecture series which grew into a two-day symposium by 1990.

The first book on the topic, Engines of Creation, was published in 1986. In 1988, Stanford University became the first to offer a course in molecular nanotechnology, sponsored by the Department of Computer Science. In 1989, this department hosted the first major conference on the subject, cosponsored by the Foresight Institute and Global Business Network. With the upcoming publication of a technical book describing nanotechnology–from molecular mechanical and quantum-mechanical principles up to assembly systems and products–the subject will be easier to teach, and more college courses will become available.

In parallel with the development and spread of ideas about nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing–ideas that remain pure theory, however well grounded–scientists and engineers, working in laboratories to build real tools and capabilities, have been pioneering roads to nanotechnology. Research has come a long way since the mid-1980s, as we'll see in the next chapter. But, as one might expect with a complex new idea that, if true, disrupts a lot of existing plans and expectations, some objections have been heard.

"It Won't Work"

Life might be much simpler if these ideas about nanotechnology had some fatal flaw. If only molecules couldn't be used to form machines, or the machines couldn't be used to build things, then we might be able to keep right on going with our crude technologies: our medicine that doesn't heal, our spacecraft that don't open a new frontier, our oil crises, our pollution, and all the limits that keep us from trading familiar problems for strange ones. Most new ideas are wrong, especially if they purport to bring radical changes. It is not unreasonable to hope that these are wrong. From years of discussions with chemists, physicists, and engineers, it is possible to compile what seems to be a complete list of basic, critical questions about whether nanotechnology will work. The questioners generally seem satisfied with the answers.

"Will Thermal Vibrations Mess Things Up?"

The earlier scenarios describe the nature of thermal vibration and the problems it can cause. Designing nanomachines strong enough and stiff enough to operate reliably despite thermal vibration is a genuine engineering challenge. But calculating the design requirements usually requires only simple textbook principles, and these requirements can be met for everything described in this book.

"Will Quantum Uncertainty Mess Things Up?"

Quantum mechanics says that particles must be described as small smears of probability, not as points with perfectly defined locations. This is, in fact, why the atoms and molecules in the simulations felt so soft and smooth: their electrons are smeared out over the whole volume of the molecule, and these electron clouds taper off smoothly and softly toward the edges. Atoms themselves are a bit uncertain in position, but this is a small effect compared to thermal vibrations. Again, simple textbook principles apply, and well-designed molecular machines will work.

"Will Loose Molecules Mess Things Up?"

Chemists work with loose molecules in liquids, and they naturally tend to picture molecules as flying around loose. It is possible to build nanomachines and molecular-manufacturing systems that work in this sort of environment (biological mechanisms are an existence proof), but in the long run, there will be no need to do so. The Silicon Valley Faire simulation gives the right idea: Systems can be built with no loose molecules, making nanomechanical design much easier. If no molecules are loose inside a machine, then loose molecules can't cause problems there.

"Will Chemical Instability Mess Things Up?"

Chemists perform chemical reactions, which means that they tend to work with reactive, unstable molecules. Many molecules, though, can sit around in peace with their neighbors for millions of years, as is known both from chemical theory and from the study of molecules trapped in ancient rock. Nanomachines can be built from the more stable sorts of structure. The only necessary exception is in molecular assembly, where molecules must react, but even here the reactive molecules need not be turned loose. They can be applied just when and where they are needed in the construction process.

"Is It Too Complex, Like Biology?"

An easy way to explain molecular manufacturing is to say that it is somewhat like molecular biology: small, complex molecular devices working together to build things and do various jobs. The next point, however, is that molecular manufacturing is different in every detail and different in overall structure: compare the nanocomputers, assembler arms, and conveyor belts described above to the shaggy, seething living cell described in the last chapter. Biology is complex in a strange and wonderful way. Engineers need not even understand life, much less duplicate it, merely to build a molecular-scale factory.

"I don't see anything wrong with it. But it's so interdisciplinary–couldn't there be a problem I can't see?"

Nanotechnology is basically a shotgun marriage of chemistry and mechanical engineering, with physics (as always) presiding. This makes a complete evaluation difficult for most of today's specialists, because each of these fields is taught separately and usually practiced separately. Many specialists, having highly focused backgrounds, find themselves unequipped to evaluate proposals that overlap other disciplines. When asked to do so, they will state feelings of discomfort, because although they can't identify any particular problems, they can't verify the entire concept as sound. Scientists and engineers with multidisciplinary backgrounds, or with access to specialists from other fields, can evaluate the idea from all sides. We'll meet some of these in Chapter 4.

It Will Work.

When physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers, and computer scientists evaluate those parts of nanotechnology that fall within their disciplines, they agree: At no point would it require new principles or violate a physical law. There may for many years be some experts offering negative off-the-cuff opinions, but the consensus among those who have taken the time to examine the facts is clear. Molecular nanotechnology falls entirely within the realm of the possible.

"It Would Work, but Isn't It a Bad Idea to Implement It?"

If this means, "These new technologies could easily do far more harm than good," then there is no argument, because no one seems to disagree.

If this means, "These new technologies will certainly do more harm than good," then we disagree: much good is possible, much harm is avoidable, and it would be too bold to declare any such outcome "certain."

If this means, "These new technologies should be avoided," then we reply, "How, with what risks, and with what consequences?" Chapters 12 and 13 conclude that it is safer to ride the beast than to hang on to its tail while others swarm aboard.

If this means, "Don't think about it or describe it," then we reply, "How else are we to understand it or make decisions?"

Increased human abilities have routinely been used to damage the environment and to make war. Even the crude technologies of the twentieth century have taken us to the brink. It is natural to feel exhilarated (or terrified) by a prospect that promises (or threatens) to extend human abilities beyond most past dreams (or nightmares). It is better to feel both, to meld and moderate these feelings, and to set out on a course of action that makes bad outcomes less likely. We're convinced that the best course is to focus on the potential good while warning of the potential evils.

"But Isn't It Unlikely to Arrive Within Our Lifetimes?"

Those in failing health may be justified in saying this; others are expressing an opinion that may well be wrong. It would be optimistic to assume that benefits are around the corner, and prudent to assume that they will be long delayed. Conversely, it would be optimistic to assume that dangers will be long delayed, and prudent to assume that they will arrive promptly. Whatever good or ill may come of post-breakthrough capabilities, the turbulence of the coming transition will present a real danger. While we invite readers to take a "What if?" stance toward these technologies, it would be imprudent to listen to the lulling sound of the promise "not in our lifetimes."

Even today, public acceptance of man's coming exploration of space is slow. It is considered an event our children may experience, but certainly not one that we shall see.

—E. Bergaust and W. Beller

From the foreword to Satellite!, written July 1957

Sputnik orbits Earth, October 1957

Footprints on Moon, July 1969


We are still many years away from nanotechnology based on molecular manufacturing. It might even seem that such vast, slow giants as ourselves could never make such small, quick machines. The following sections will describe how advances in science and technology are leading toward these abilities. We'll try to get some feel for the road ahead, for its length, and for how fast we're moving. We are already surprisingly close to developing a crude molecular manufacturing technology, and getting visibly closer every week. The first, crude technology will enable the construction of molecular machines that can be used to build better molecular machines, climbing a ladder of capabilities that leads to general-purpose molecular assemblers as good or better than those described here.

The opportunities then will be enormous. If we haven't prepared, the dangers, too, will be enormous. Whether we're ready or not, the resulting changes will be disruptive, sweeping industries aside, upending military strategies, and transforming our ways of life.

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