What is Molecular Manufacturing?
If you're a Star Trek fan, you remember the replicator,
a device that could produce anything from a
space age guitar to a cup of Earl Grey tea. Your favorite character just programmed the replicator,
and whatever he or she wanted appeared.
Researchers are working on developing a
method called molecular manufacturing that may someday make the Star
Trek replicator a reality. The gadget these folks envision is called a
molecular fabricator; this device would use tiny manipulators to position atoms
to build an object as complex as a desktop computer. As
shown in this video,
researchers believe that raw materials can be used to reproduce almost
any inanimate object using this method.
By building an object atom by atom or molecule by molecule, molecular
manufacturing, also called molecular nanotechnology, can produce new materials with improved
performance over existing materials.
For example, an airplane strut must be very strong, but also
lightweight. A molecular fabricator
could build the strut atom by atom
out of carbon, making a lightweight material that is stronger than a diamond.
Remember that a diamond is merely a lattice of carbon atoms held together by bonds
between the atoms. By placing carbon atoms, one after the other, in the
shape of the strut, such a fabricator could create a diamond-like
material that is lightweight and stronger than any metal.
Researchers believe that molecular manufacturing also has the
revolutionize medicine. For example, sensors that are smaller than
blood cells could be produced inexpensively. When released into a patient's blood
stream in large numbers, these sensors could provide very
accurate diagnoses. Nanorobots
could be built using molecular manufacturing to perform
in a more precise way. By working at the cellular level, such nanorobots
could prevent much of the damage caused by the comparatively clumsy
Molecular fabricators may be available
to anybody, anywhere
in about twenty years or so. When fabricators are available, any item whose design has
been programmed into them can be produced cheaply and in large quantities. This could significantly improve living conditions in
regions that do not have easy access to manufactured goods. For example,
filters could be produced to help in regions with contaminated water
supplies and solar cells could make
electricity available in the remotest jungle or desert.
However, molecular manufacturing could
also turn our world's economies on their heads. Many
manufacturing industries may be made obsolete and society could be
transformed forever. Molecular manufacturing could spawn another industrial revolution
that completely changes the way we do business. At the same time, such advances
could make it easy and cheap to produce powerful weapons. The ability to
produce this kind of drastic change is the reason that nanotechnology is
often referred to as a "disruptive" technology.
Who's Working on Molecular
Though researchers are still at the stage where a lot of background
work needs to be done, here are some organizations that are leading the
Providing the Infrastructure for Molecular Manufacturing
The Foresight Institute has developed a
to guide researchers working toward molecular manufacturing.
The Nanofactory Collaboration's long
term goal is to design, and ultimately to build, a working nanofactory.
Their initial goal is the experimental demonstration of controlled
diamond mechanosysthesis, i.e. using a mechanical tooltip to
individual carbon atoms in a structure.
The Center for
Responsible Nanotechnology sees it as their mission to: "1) raise awareness
of the benefits, the
dangers, and the
possibilities for responsible use of advanced nanotechnology; 2)
expedite a thorough
examination of the environmental, humanitarian, economic, military,
political, social, medical, and ethical implications of molecular
manufacturing; and 3) assist in the
creation and implementation
of wise, comprehensive, and balanced plans for responsible worldwide use
of this transformative technology."
3-D modeling software that simulates nano-scale structures. Nanorex is
planting the seed of MM in our schools by providing their modeling
software free of charge to 'qualified' high schools and universities.
Working on Development of Molecular Fabricators
Zyvex was founded
with purpose of becoming the leading supplier of tools and services to
enable molecular manufacturing. They have developed nanomanipulators, MEMS
design software and a process to functionalize carbon nanotubes. Zyvex
is working on several
such as automated assembly of micro-scale components, that will add
knowledge useful in working toward the long term goal of molecular
manufacturing and have
summarized why they believe atomically precise manufacturing can be
Center for Bits and Atoms may be the 500 pound technology
gorilla in the MM jungle. One of this center's key goals is the
development of molecular fabricators.
Nanotechnology Venture Capitalists
is working to advance the state of molecular nanotechnology by providing seed capital, advice, contacts, and other
support services to researchers and business people involved in
molecular nanotechnology initiatives.