Nanotechnology draws its name from the prefix “nano”. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter—a distance equal to two to twenty atoms (depending on what type of atom) laid down next to each other. Nanotechnology refers to manipulating the structure of matter on a length scale of some small number of nanometers, interpreted by different people at different times as meaning anything from 0.1 nm (controlling the arrangement of individual atoms) to 100 nm or more (anything smaller than microtechnology). Richard Feynman was the first scientist to suggest (in 1959) that devices and materials could someday be fabricated to atomic specifications. “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom.” This concept was expanded and popularized in a 1986 book Engines of Creation by K Eric Drexler, who applied the term nanotechnology to Feynman’s vision.
The term “nano-technology” had been coined in 1974 by Norio Taniguichi to describe semiconductor processes involving control on the order of a nanometer. From the mid-1980s on progress in nanometer-scale science and technology exploded, and the term nanotechnology was appropriated by researchers, media, businesses, and funding agencies to refer to any technology in which control of the structure of matter on a scale of nanometers to tens of nanometers to hundreds of nanometers in at least one dimension enabled unique phenomena and novel applications.
The Foresight Institute is still focused on the original meaning of the term: atomically-precise manufacturing or “molecular manufacturing”. Nevertheless, incremental progress in nanometer-scale science and technology expands the toolkit that can be used to develop atomically-precise manufacturing, and provides benefits to encourage further investment in nanotechnology.
For the General Reader
Nanotechnology is a group of emerging technologies in which the structure of matter is controlled at the nanometer scale, the scale of small numbers of atoms, to produce novel materials and devices that have useful and unique properties. Some of these technologies impose only limited control of structure at the nanometer scale, but they are already in use, producing useful products. They are also being further developed to produce even more sophisticated products in which the structure of matter is more precisely controlled. The Foresight Nanotechnology Challenges focus on applying these developing technologies to solving important world problems.
Foresight was founded on an interest in the capabilities that await at the end of this development process, when advanced nanotechnology will enable construction of complex systems in which each individual atom is specified and serves a designed function in the system. To read about these capabilities and their consequences:
For the Technical Reader
Technical introductions to advanced nanotechnology have emphasized theoretical studies of what our current knowledge of physics and chemistry tells us about the kinds of systems we will eventually be able to build as our ability to control the structure of matter at the nanometer scale increases. Although the best path from current experimental abilities to building advanced systems is not yet clear, several authors have described some good possibilities.
Molecular manufacturing is the name given to the proposal that molecular machine systems will eventually be able to manufacture most objects, including large objects, from the molecule up, building complex products with atomic precision.
The proposal that advanced nanotechnology will include artificial molecular machine systems capable of building complex systems to atomic precision has been controversial within the scientific community. In general, proponents have argued from the grounds of theoretical analysis coupled with the existence of multiple plausible implementation pathways from current technology, while opponents have been unimpressed with theoretical arguments in the absence of direct experimental demonstration of crucial milestones.