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What is Nanotechnology?

Last Updated: Monday, 20-Apr-2015 19:51:36 PDT

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. See our "Current Uses" page for examples. This evolved version of the term is more properly labeled "nanoscale bulk technology," while the original meaning is now more properly labeled "molecular nanotechnology" (MNT), or "nanoscale engineering," or "molecular mechanics," or "molecular machine systems," or "molecular manufacturing." Recently, the Foresight Institute has suggested an alternate term to represent the original meaning of nanotechnology: zettatechnology.

At the most basic technical level, MNT is building, with intent and design, and molecule by molecule, these two things: 1) incredibly advanced and extremely capable nano-scale and micro-scale machines and computers, and 2) ordinary size objects, using other incredibly small machines called assemblers or fabricators (found inside nanofactories). In a nutshell, by taking advantage of quantum-level properties, MNT allows for unprecedented control of the material world, at the nanoscale, providing the means by which systems and materials can be built with exacting specifications and characteristics. Or, as Dr. K. Eric Drexler puts it "large-scale mechanosynthesis based on positional control of chemically reactive molecules."

MNT represents the state of the art in advances in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, computer science and mathematics. The major research objectives in MNT are the design, modeling, and fabrication of molecular machines and molecular devices. The emergence of MNT - both infant and mature - has numerous social, legal, cultural, ethical, religious, philosophical and political implications.

At the most basic social level, MNT is going to be responsible for massive changes in the way we live, the way we interact with one another and our environment, and the things we are capable of doing.

For more information, read What is Nanotechnology? by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, this explanation from CORDIS for a "child's eye view" of nanotechnology, and What is Nanotechnology? by Tim Harper. See also Introduction to Nanoscience by Prof. Vicki Colvin, Rice University Department of Chemistry and Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology. See also What is Nanotechnology? from LANL, and Dr. Mihail Roco's presentation titled National Nanotechnology Initiative Overview from the 3rd Integrated Nanosystems Conference in Pasadena, California, held on September 22nd, 2004. (PDF)

For more information on the potential (both good and bad), see War, Interdependence, and Nanotechnology

For more information on a recent study devoted to the beneficial potential of nanotechnology Nanotechnology in Construction - one of the top ten answers to world's biggest problems

At the end of the day, it is not the meaning behind the terms that is important, it is the fact that all the many definitions suggest that we have been and are on a rapidly accelerating technological rollercoaster, and rapid change is the track it rides.

Once MNT develops to the stage where we've built the two most essential machines - called the Universal Assembler and the Nanocomputer - everything has a near-term possibility of significant change.

"A key ingredient in understanding nanotechnology is realizing precisely what it is and what it isn't. ... we are talking about research and development in the length scale of .1 nanometers to 100 nanometers to create unique structures, devices, and systems. In many instances the actual structures, devices, and systems will be much larger, but they will be classified as nanotechnology due to the fact that they will either be created at the nanoscale or nanotechnology will enable them to perform new and/or improved functions.

Many materials, once they are individually reduced below 100 nanometers, begin displaying a set of unique characteristics based on quantum mechanical forces that are exhibited at the level. Due to these quantum mechanical effects, materials may become more conducting, be able to transfer heat better, or have modified mechanical properties." From "The Next Big Thing Is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business." By Jack Uldrich & Deb Newberry. March 2003 Read our review

To get a better idea of why the nanometer scale is so important, see the explanation at the LANL site: Why is this length scale so important?

"Imagine a world in which microscopic procreating robots are sent into the human body with the mission of detecting cancer cells, disassembling them, and sending them out into the bloodstream as waste products. Then imagine similar robots in the hands of a sinister force that decides to turn an entire continent into gray dust. Science fiction or reality?" From Souls, Slavery, and Survival in the Molenotech Age: An Alien's Version by Lin Sten.

Comprised of three independent and interdependent movements: Dry, Wet, and Computational Nanotechnology; MNT represents the state of the art in advances in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, computer science and mathematics. The major research objectives in MNT are the design, modeling, and fabrication of molecular machines and molecular devices. The emergence of MNT--both infant and mature--has numerous social, legal, cultural, ethical, religious, philosophical and political implications.

Much as the invention of electricity and transistors were enabling technologies, so too is Nanotechnology (more precisely, nanoscale technologies) enabling - it will enable us to do radical new things in virtually every technological and scientific arena. It will also change things in unpredictable and unanticipated ways. Having learned lessons from their experiences with other revolutionary technologies, scientists (technologists and social scientists) are collaborating in examinating the implications of the developments that are beginning to take place, in an effort to both smooth the transitions, and to head off potential negative consequences (such as Gray Goo or government intervention in research and development).

Some things that become practical with mature Nanotechology (paraphrasing Dr. K. Eric Drexler):

  • Nearly free consumer products
  • PC's billions of times faster then today
  • Safe and affordable space travel
  • Virtual end to illness, aging, death
  • No more pollution and automatic cleanup of existing pollution
  • End of famine and starvation
  • Superior education for every child on Earth
  • Reintroduction of many extinct plants and animals
  • Terraforming Earth and the Solar System

And for all who take a more science-specific approach:

From: Nanosystems Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. By K. Eric Drexler

The following devices and capabilities appear to be both physically possible and practically realizable:

• Programmable positioning of reactive molecules with ~0.1 nm precision
• Mechanosynthesis at >106operations/device second
• Mechanosynthetic assembly of 1 kg objects in <104 s
• Nanomechanical systems operating at ~109 Hz
• Logic gates that occupy ~10–26 m3 (~10– 8 m3)
• Logic gates that switch in ~0.1 ns and dissipate <10– 21 J
• Computers that perform 1016 instructions per second per watt
• Cooling of cubic-centimeter, ~105 W systems at 300 K
• Compact 1015 MIPS parallel computing systems
• Mechanochemical power conversion at >109 W/m3
• Electromechanical power conversion at >1015 W/m3
• Macroscopic components with tensile strengths >51010 Pa
• Production systems that can double capital stocks in <104 s

Of these capabilities, several are qualitatively novel and others improve on present engineering practice by one or more orders of magnitude. Each is an aspect or a consequence of molecular manufacturing.

While there is great debate as to when MNT will start to seriously impact us, best guesses range from around 2015 to as late as 2025. Certainly within the lifetime of most everyone currently under 60 years of age.

Along with the development of Nanotechnology comes the necessity to develop reasonable guidelines, procedures, and laws in order to protect humanity from misuse of the technologies. With that in mind, we bring you:

Assumptions, principles, and some specific recommendations intended to provide a basis for responsible development of molecular nanotechnology.

From the Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology

Development Principles

  1. Artificial replicators must not be capable of replication in a natural, uncontrolled environment.
  2. Evolution within the context of a self-replicating manufacturing system is discouraged.
  3. Any replicated information should be error free.
  4. MNT device designs should specifically limit proliferation and provide traceability of any replicating systems.
  5. Developers should attempt to consider systematically the environmental consequences of the technology, and to limit these consequences to intended effects. This requires significant research on environmental models, risk management, as well as the theory, mechanisms, and experimental designs for built-in safeguard systems.
  6. Industry self-regulation should be designed in whenever possible. Economic incentives could be provided through discounts on insurance policies for MNT development organizations that certify Guidelines compliance. Willingness to provide self-regulation should be one condition for access to advanced forms of the technology.
  7. Distribution of molecular manufacturing development capability should be restricted, whenever possible, to responsible actors that have agreed to use the Guidelines. No such restriction need apply to end products of the development process that satisfy the Guidelines.

Specific Design Guidelines

  1. Any self-replicating device which has sufficient onboard information to describe its own manufacture should encrypt it such that any replication error will randomize its blueprint.
  2. Encrypted MNT device instruction sets should be utilized to discourage irresponsible proliferation and piracy.
  3. Mutation (autonomous and otherwise) outside of sealed laboratory conditions, should be discouraged.
  4. Replication systems should generate audit trails.
  5. MNT device designs should incorporate provisions for built-in safety mechanisms, such as: 1) absolute dependence on a single artificial fuel source or artificial "vitamins" that don't exist in any natural environment; 2) making devices that are dependent on broadcast transmissions for replication or in some cases operation; 3) routing control signal paths throughout a device, so that subassemblies do not function independently; 4) programming termination dates into devices, and 5) other innovations in laboratory or device safety technology developed specifically to address the potential dangers of MNT.
  6. MNT developers should adopt systematic security measures to avoid unplanned distribution of their designs and technical capabilities.

There is one very important and simple method to insure the safe development of MNT: become involved in the debate. Regardles of your opionion, you need to both express it and stand behind it, in forums both public and virtual. Educate yourself -- we will provide the tools, right here. And if there is ever anything you need regarding information, just ask.

Another great resource is The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) A non-profit organization, formed to advance the safe use of molecular nanotechnology. CRN was founded by Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder in December 2002. The vision of CRN is a world in which nanotechnology is widely used for productive and beneficial purposes, and where malicious uses are limited by effective administration of the technology. Or go to the Google sci.nanotech Group and ask your questions.

"The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big." - December 29th, 1959

"In not too many decades we should have a manufacturing technology able to: Build products with almost every atom in the right place; Do so inexpensively; Make most arrangements of atoms consistent with physical law. Often called nanotechnology, molecular nanotechnology or molecular manufacturing, it will let us make most products lighter, stronger, smarter, cheaper, cleaner and more precise." Nanotechnology: It's a Small, Small, Small, Small World By Ralph C. Merkle, Ph.D.

"... an immense technical, business, and social tsunami is coming along shortly ... companies are already being forced to deal with a blinding rate of technological change. This speed-up will likely increase, and definitely spread." (our emphasis) Gayle Pergamit and Chris Peterson Palo Alto, California, April 1997

A short list of sites with information considered essential to understanding the basics of molecular nanotechnology:

Foresight FAQ The best entry level introduction.

Brief introduction to the core concepts Ralph C. Merkle.

Nanomedicine by Robert A. Freitas Jr.

Nanomedicine FAQ Robert A. Freitas Jr.

Slide Show Overview Richard H. Smith, II.

Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology National Science Foundation -- September 2000

Introduction to Nanomedicine for the general reader, published in 2000. Robert A. Freitas Jr.

A Short History

A beginner's guide to nanotechnology Dallas Business Journal September 07, 2001

The Proceedings of the 1989 NanoCon Northwest regional nanotechnology conference, with K. Eric Drexler as Guest of Honor. Another great piece of history.

But what about money? OR: "Proposal for an Ideal Nano-Specie: Gold-Pressed Latinum" Robert A. Freitas Jr.

National Nanotechnology Initiative The Initiative and its Implementation Plan

House Basic Research Subcommittee hears testimony on nanotechnology Considers proposal to increase funds to $500M per year. July 1, 1999 -- Good piece of history and context.

Scientific American A collection of their articles pro and con

Nanotechnology without Genies Nanotechnology critique by Lyle Burkhead 1999

The Once and Future Nanomachine A critique of nanotechnology by George M. Whitesides 09-2001

Many Future Nanomachines: A Rebuttal to Whiteside's Assertion That Mechanical Molecular Assemblers Are Not Workable and Not A Concern.

Foresight Debate with Scientific American - Debate on nanotechnology: Round 1 from Dr. Ralph Merkle. Rebuttal to SciAm article. See also: That's impossible! How good scientists reach bad conclusions.

smaller faster better - the nanoscale mantra
the nanoscale mantra

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