Will a "'proto-prototype' for a nanoassembler" lead to atomically precise manufacturing?

A special issue of the International Journal of Nanomanufacturing presenting topics on manufacturing in 3D at the nanoscale (derived from the 4th International Symposium on Nanomanufacturing held at MIT in November 2006) contains a report of a nanomanipulator for the complex assembly of nanoparticles. Although the press release from Inderscience Publishers, via AAAS EurekAlert (“Are nanobots on their way? US researchers have built a proto-prototype nano assembler“) explicitly references Eric Drexler’s 1986 description of an assembler, it is not clear (to me) from what is presented how close this mechanism might come to atomically precise manufacturing.

…Jason Gorman of the Intelligent Systems Division at the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) … and his colleagues at NIST have taken a novel approach to building a nanoassembler and reveal details in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Nanomanufacturing [abstract]. “Our demonstration is still a work in progress,” says Gorman, “you might describe it as a ‘proto-prototype’ for a nanoassembler.”

…The NIST system consists of four Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) devices positioned around a centrally located port on a chip into which the starting materials can be placed. Each nanomanipulator is composed of positioning mechanism with an attached nanoprobe. By simultaneously controlling the position of each of these nanoprobes, the team can use them to cooperatively assemble a complex structure on a very small scale. “If successful, this project will result in an on-chip nanomanufacturing system that would be the first of its kind,” says Gorman.

“Our micro-scale nanoassembly system is designed for real-time imaging of the nanomanipulation procedures using a scanning electron microscope,” explains Gorman, “and multiple nanoprobes can be used to grasp nanostructures in a cooperative manner to enable complex assembly operations.” Importantly, once the team has optimized their design they anticipate that nanoassembly systems could be made for around $400 per chip at present costs. This is thousands of times cheaper than macro-scale systems such as the AFM.

Gorman points out that it should be possible to have multiple nanoassemblers working simultaneously to manufacture next generation nanoelectronics. At the moment, his team is interested in developing the platform for scientists and engineers to make cutting edge discoveries in nanotechnology. “Very few effective tools exist for manipulation and assembly at the nano-scale, thereby limiting the growth of this critical field,” he says.

“The work described in the IJNM paper is somewhat preliminary and focuses on the design and characterization of the micro-scale nanomanipulator sub-components,” adds Gorman, “We are currently fabricating a somewhat revised micro-scale nanoassembly system that we believe will be capable of manipulating nanoparticles by the end of the summer,” Gorman says, “We will publishing those results once they are available.”

This could be quite an advance, but the news report and the journal abstract are too sparse to guess how small are the building blocks that would be manipulated. Would the system (as it is now or with incremental improvements) work with atomically precise nanoparticles and could the orientation and position of the nanoparticles be determined to atomic precision? The precision might be limited to a few nanometers—useful for assembling nanoparticles but about an order of magnitude too large for atomically precise positioning. Alternatively, perhaps larger atomically precise building blocks could be developed that would fit together with atomic precision if manipulated to within a few nanometers of the correction position. If anyone can afford €30 (about $47) to purchase the paper, it would be interesting to hear more. Otherwise, we will await further progress and hope that this nanoassembler proves to be a step on the road to productive nanosystems.

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