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Nanotechnology is a diverse collection of fields, touching on biology, medicine, materials, computers, manufacturing, physics, and several others. The distinctions are often blurred, sometimes deliberately for funding or rhetorical purposes. Readers-and even some nanotechnologists-may not know all of the meanings, so clear understanding and explanation will be crucial.
There are two main categories of nanotechnology, referred to here as nanoscale technology and molecular manufacturing. As explained in the "History of Nanotechnology" section, there is an unfortunate lack of standard terminology.
Nanoscale technology covers small structures; the usual definition is things from 1 to 100 nanometers in size, but this is sometimes extended. Small structures can be used for stronger materials, better medicine, and faster computers. The downside is fears that the new materials may pose new health risks. See "Introduction to Nanoscale Technology" for more discussion of what it is, and "Risks and Benefits of Nanoscale Technology" for discussion of why it's important.
Molecular manufacturing is an attempt to build mechanical chemical manufacturing systems that join molecules together (like enzymes or catalysts) under the control of computers (like robots). Proponents assert that this can be a very powerful and worthwhile technology, making products with futuristic performance. According to theory, chemical manufacturing can be very fast, precise, and reliable, allowing automated fabrication of complex products including molecular manufacturing systems-thus, they claim, the cost of manufacturing will be near zero. Opponents argue (correctly) that studies of molecular manufacturing are still largely theoretical, and (incorrectly) that there is evidence that it's impossible or impractical. For more information, see "Introduction to Molecular Manufacturing" and "Molecular Manufacturing Myths."
Molecular manufacturing is the source of a notorious but overrated worry: the idea of tiny self-replicating robots ("grey goo") devouring the biosphere. It also raises other, more realistic concerns. For more information, see "Risks and Benefits of Molecular Manufacturing."
Most current technical research is directed at nanoscale technologies, though some of this research has implications for molecular manufacturing as well. Policy research may address either or both. Publications from interest groups may address either or both, or may confuse the two, or may report exaggerated or fictional versions of the technology as fact.
Because nanotechnology is so diverse and includes a fundamental split between nanoscale technology and molecular manufacturing, even scientists and nanotechnologists may not give reliable information about the field. This problem is especially acute for molecular manufacturing; some scientists will talk outside their field of expertise to assert flatly that it's impossible, giving explanations that sound plausible but are scientifically unfounded. See "Molecular Manufacturing Myths" for examples.
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