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July 1st, 2008

Making Something Out Of Nothing

Abstract:
But we don't operate at the atomic level. We make things by heating, boiling or hacking at huge hunks of a given material until it's the right shape--from tree to table, say, or iron ore to ear. Gradually, though, a new field of science is being born, based on the idea that individual atoms and molecules can be manipulated to create anything--any material, any food, any substance-more efficiently and more abundantly than even nature can. Most of the objects in this microverse are measured in nanometers-billionths of a meter-so the new science is called nanotechnology.

The idea isn't new. In 1959 the physicist Richard Feynman predicted atom-by-atom manipulation would revolutionize computing and material science. But it was an engineer named K. Eric Drexler who named nanotechnology. In 1981 he proposed "molecular machinery able to position reactive groups to atomic precision." In other words, build things from the atoms up.

The holy grail of nanotech is the universal assembler, a hypothetical submicroscopic robot with legs capable of putting molecules together like Legos. "It could be reprogrammed to build a wide range of useful products, and it would be able to make copies of itself," says Ralph Merkle, a researcher at Xerox PARC. Assemblers might float in a liquid that supplies fuel and raw molecules to build with. The result, saynanotechies, would be an unceasing stream of nearly free stuff. Diamond could become a building material. "Diamond has a strength-to-weight ratio over 50 times that of steel," Merkle says. "Imagine taking the space shuttle and reducing its structural weight by a factor of 50." How about nanites in the bloodstream, repairing cellular damage? Paints and dyes that change color? It's easy to see how nano guys can start to sound a little religious.

Source:
newsweek.com

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