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An Overview of Nanotechnology

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). At the small end of this scale, the structure is controlled to atomic precision—each atom is exactly where it should be for the optimum function of the material or the device. The Foresight Institute is focused on this small end of the scale: atomically-precise manufacturing or "molecular manufacturing".

Life is the Existence Proof for Atomically Precise Technology

Chemistry has of course always worked with atomic precision. Molecules are made from specific arrangements of specific numbers of specific types of atoms. Chemistry mostly deals with arrangements of several to several tens to several hundreds of atoms. Larger structures are made by linking together certain molecules into long chains—polymers. Billions of years before chemists discovered this trick to make plastics and synthetic fibers, nature used this strategy to invent life. The crucial molecules of life—RNA, proteins, and DNA—are long polymers each composed of a few types of subunit molecules linked together into a specific long sequence. Protein and some RNA molecules fold their long chains into specific 3D shapes that have specific functions. These and many other types of molecules form large complexes of molecules that associate to form subcellular components that make up cells, tissues, organs, and individuals. Taken together they perform the myriad functions, including thought and consciousness, that living organisms are capable of.

In biology, macromolecules self-assemble into the systems of molecular machines that cells and organisms comprise. Biology thus provides an existence proof for the myriad capabilities of self-assembled molecular machine systems. Advanced nanotechnology will augment self-assembly copied from biology with one additional tool: positional control of chemical synthesis. From Ralph Merkle:
Molecular Manufacturing: Adding Positional Control to Chemical Synthesis

Building to Atomic Precision

Chemistry builds molecules from precise arrangements of atoms. Biology builds cells and organisms from polymers composed of precise sequences of specific molecules that fold into specific shapes and associate in specific configurations with specific other biopolymers according to the information encoded in their sequences. Human ancestors began making crude stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Succeeding species learned to make finer and more complex stone tools, and succeeding cultures of modern humans learned to build more complex and useful products as they learned ever finer control of the structure of matter. But it was not until the mid-20th century that a scientist asked what could we build if we could put atoms wherever we wanted them, consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry.

This level of technology was first described by Richard Feynman in 1959 in a visionary talk "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom". "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom." He asked "What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them…" He concluded "The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic level, is ultimately developed—a development which I think cannot be avoided." 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. Drexler styled nanotechnology as the ultimate manufacturing technology and described the unprecedented opportunities it will present in areas from medicine to space colonization, and also risks that could result from accidents or misuse of the technology. The Feynman-Drexler view of nanotechnology has also been termed molecular nanotechnology, or molecular manufacturing, or atomically precise productive nanosystems to distinguish it from broader definitions of less advanced forms of nanotechnology, already implemented in laboratories and in commerce, that control the structure of matter to coarser dimensions than atomic precision.
Feynman's Vision, Molecular Manufacturing, and Nanofactories

The term "nano-technology" had been coined in 1974 by Norio Taniguichi to describe semiconductor processes involving control on the order of a nanometer. Taniguichi was also looking toward atomic precision: "Nano-technology' mainly consists of the processing of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule." ["On the Basic Concept of 'Nano-Technology'," Proc. Intl. Conf. Prod. Eng. Tokyo, Part II, Japan Society of Precision Engineering, 1974.]

Progress in Nanoscale Science and Technology

Confidence that atomically precise manufacturing will ultimately be possible is based upon physics based modeling, which Eric Drexler originally labeled exploratory engineering or theoretical applied science. Crucial to this optimism has been the explosion of progress in several areas of nanoscale science and technology during the 1980s. Much of this progress was highlighted at the Foresight Institute Conferences on Nanotechnology, beginning in 1989. To encourage and reward progress leading toward Feynman's goal for nanotechnology, the Foresight Institute Feynman Prizes were established in 1993.
A Short History of Nanotechnology
Nobel Paths to Nanotechnology (1987)
Foresight Institute Conferences on Nanotechnology
Foresight Institute Feynman Prizes

Laboratory successes in nanoscale science and technology were not only creating enabling technologies for the road to advanced nanotechnology, they were also creating abundant opportunities for current and near- to intermediate-term applications in better materials for consumer goods, sensors and devices, computer technology, energy, and medicine. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies tracks "manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market". As of early 2011, "there are currently 1014 products, produced by 484 companies, located in 24 countries."

Since May of 2000, Foresight Institute's blog Nanodot has been tracking progress in enabling technologies leading to advanced nanotechnology and other emerging technology issues, and, to a lesser extent, more general progress in nanoscale science and technology. Foresight publications have also followed nanotechnology progress—the quarterly Foresight Update from June of 1987 through spring of 2007, and the email Update from June 2005 through the present. From June of 2005 through January of 2008, the Foresight Nanotechnology Challenges, followed progress in six areas of nanotechnology application that are particularly relevant to nanotechnology benefiting humanity.

Rapid progress in nanoscale science and technology during the 1980s and 1990s led to a consensus that US funding for nanoscale research and development should be greatly increased (see "Nobel Chemist, Others Issue Strong Call for National Nanotechnology Initiative"). The US National Nanotechnology Initiative was set up in 2001 and focuses on "understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications." The large majority of this support was not targeted to achieving the Feynman-Drexler vision of atomically precise manufacturing, leading to calls to balance the NNI research and development portfolio periodically "to ensure a range of low-, medium-, and long-term projects, as well as a wider range of risk" (see "Balancing the National Nanotechnology Initiative's R&D Portfolio"). Although no one argued against the importance of near- and medium-term projects, there was considerable skepticism in some sectors of the nanotechnology research community that the long-term goal of molecular manufacturing was attainable. Highlighting these different perspectives was a debate in 2003 between Drexler and Richard E. Smalley, a prominent early supporter of the NNI and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes, published in Chemical & Engineering News. For an overview of the issues, see "Is the Revolution Real?" (2003) and "Nanotechnology: From Feynman to Funding", by K. Eric Drexler [PDF file, 80 KB], published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, Vol. 24, No. 1, February 2004, 21-27. In 2006, a report on the U.S. NNI from the National Academies' National Research Council called for experimentation to explore the potential of molecular manufacturing more complex than simple self-assembly.
Feasibility of Molecular Manufacturing

The question of whether or not advanced nanotechnology (molecular manufacturing or atomically precise productive nanosystems) is feasible will be settled by the development and successful implementation of a roadmap from current capabilities in nanotechnology to advanced systems. Working from 2005 through 2007, the Foresight Institute and Battelle, with the support of the Waitt Family Foundation, produced the first such roadmap, the "Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems".