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What is a nanometer?
A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter, and is derived from the Greek word for dwarf, "nano." A nm is about the width of six bonded carbon atoms; about a million nanometers will reach across the head of a pin; and your fingernails grow approximately one nanometer per second.
Another way to visualize a nanometer:
1 inch = 25,400,000 nanometers
A red blood cell is ~7,000 nm in diameter, and ~2000 nm in height
A virus is ~100 nm
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is the projected ability to make things from the bottom up, using techniques and tools that are being developed today to place every atom and molecule in a desired place. Nanotechnology is often referred to as a general-purpose technology. That’s because in its mature form it will have significant impact on almost all industries and all areas of society. It offers better built, longer lasting, cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation, for agriculture, and for industry in general.
The term "nanotechnology" has evolved over the years via terminology drift to mean "anything smaller than microtechnology," such as nano powders, and other things that are nanoscale in size, but not referring to mechanisms that have been purposefully built from nanoscale components.
How is nanotechnology different from microtechnology?
Aside from taking place at a scale one to three orders of magnitude smaller, some of the most promising potential of nanotechnology exists due to the laws of quantum physics that become increasingly important at that scale and below. At the nanoscale, different physical laws apply, enabling novel applications in optics, electronics, magnetic storage, computing, catalysts, and other areas.
What does 'MNT' stand for?
MNT is the acronym for molecular nanotechnology. This refers to the concept of building complicated machines out of precisely designed molecules. It is this near-future stage of nanotechnology—also called molecular manufacturing—that will have major societal impact. Almost all research in nanotechnology today is not directed at MNT.
What is molecular manufacturing?
Any technology that implements digital operations, nanoscale construction, self-manufacture, programmable properties, and low error rates. This definition can apply to any technology that meets all five criteria. You can learn more about the definition by clicking here.
Is molecular manufacturing really possible?
It has been claimed repeatedly that some law of chemistry or physics will forbid molecular nanotechnology (MNT), and its transformative application, molecular manufacturing. To date, all such claims have been refuted in detail. In fact, far more serious study has been devoted to confirming the feasibility of MNT than to showing why it cannot work. As Chris Phoenix of CRN is fond of saying about proposed objections, "If it doesn't have math, it's probably a myth." Mechanosynthesis is already being done, and no one has identified any physical law or engineering obstacle that will prevent the development of molecular manufacturing.
Why do many scientists dismiss MNT as science fiction?
The whole concept of molecular nanotechnology is so complex and unfamiliar, and so staggering in its implications, that some scientists, engineers, and other pundits have flatly declared it to be impossible. The debate is further confused by science-fictional hype and media misconceptions.
It should be noted that none of those who dismiss MNT are experts in the field. They may work in chemistry, biotechnology, or other nanoscale sciences or technologies, but are not sufficiently familiar with MNT theory to critique it meaningfully.
Many of the objections, including those of chemist Richard Smalley, do not address the actual published proposals for MNT. The rest are unfounded and incorrect assertions, contradicted by detailed calculations based on the relevant physical laws.
Aren't free-floating assemblers dangerous? Couldn't they turn into "gray goo?"
The dangers of self-replicating nanobots—the so-called gray goo—have been widely discussed, and it is generally perceived that molecular manufacturing is uncomfortably close to gray goo. However, modern plans for production systems do not involve free-floating assemblers or nanobots, but much larger factories with all the nanoscale machinery fastened down and inert without external control. As far as we know, a self-replicating mechanochemical nanobot is not excluded by the laws of physics, but such a thing would be extremely difficult to design and build even with a full molecular manufacturing capability. Fiction like Michael Crichton's Prey might be good entertainment, but it's not very good science.
See also the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering FAQ
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