My own judgment is that the nanotechnology revolution has the potential to change America on a scale equal to, if not greater than, the computer revolution. — U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Nanotechnology is often called a "general-purpose" technology because it is and will have an impact on all areas of society. Some see it as the next "industrial revolution" since, it will usher in a totally new era of manufacturing in which the costs of duplication are almost zero. You may wonder why has then arisen all this interest in nanotechnology. Actually, these things have been thought about since the 1950s, but what has really pushed it, has been the computer revolution. The size of microchips and circuits is reaching a limit with our current systems of manufacture. Despite the tremendous advancements in computer design, our microchips are still inefficient, producing excessive heat and being able to operate mostly at 1 or 2 gigahertz speeds. Nano scale chips, a so called, "nanocomputer" would make our present machines seem caveman like. So, the computer industry, which these days, affects every other industry, has been pushing for this research and development. This video will give you a sense of the general field of nanotechnology.
The nanofactories themselves, will be built by other nanofactories making them very inexpensive to make and use. This nanofactory would be made up of fabricators, trillions of them. This is how some envision the look of a nanofactory. But before you can make a nanofactory, you must make the nano fabricators, which are the building blocks, the nano assemblers, of the nanofactory.
What is a fabricator? It is a small nano-robotic device that can use supplied chemicals to manufacture nanoscale products under external control. Fabricators could work together to build macroscale (something big enough that humans can interact with) products by convergent assembly (process of fastening small parts to obtain larger parts, which upwardly cycles until the product is in its full size and completed state).****
Once again it needs to be said, that in the process of nano fabricators, the computer industry is taking the lead. Currently, when a microchip is being designed, it is done by a so called "top-down" method. Chips are designed using photolithography or optical lithography. This involves removing small pieces of a thin film called a substrate, layer by layer until you are left with what you want to make. This method has been in use since the 1970s to make current computer chips. As the chip gets smaller, this method becomes more expensive, with a higher yield of error, thus raising the price of manufacture. Eventually, we will not be able to make something any smaller with this method. Most experts see our limits at making anything smaller than 22 nanometers (22 billionths of a meter).
Nanotechnologists are working on what is called a "bottoms-up" method of construction. This is where these fabricators kick in. They would assemble the needed chip from the ground up, like a bricklayer works on a wall or building. Thus, manufacturers would "grow" the chip like organisms grow. Thus some are calling this chip a "biochip." Less than a week ago, a leading manufacturer of equipment for the making of semiconductors, named EV Group (EVG), announced a new technology that permitted high-resolution manufacture of chips down to the 12.5 nanometer size. This process is called Soft Molecular Scale Nanoimprint Lithography (SMS-NIL). Here is a video on the current method of making microchips. We can use this to give you some background on the manufacturing process that this new technology will build on. This process is an example of the "top-down" method of building chips.
Molecular Manufacturing (MM)
This is the prize of nanotechnology, the goal. What is this? It is the ability to build complex products with almost every atom in its proper place. These molecules are built by a chemistry that is being worked out. These relatively large molecular shapes (when compared to the size of nanoparticles) will be assembled by nanorobots or fabricators. This molecular manufacturing is based on a new study named mechanochemistry. In nanotechnology, mechanochemistry is synonymous with mechanosynthesis. In layman's terms, mechanosynthesis is the use of chemical attraction forces to make nanosized objects self-assemble. It was first described at a Foresight Conference in 1992 and has been developed since then. These conferences are sponsored by the Foresight Institute.
Founded in 1986, we were the first organization to educate society about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology. At that time our focus was on preparing society for nanotechnology, then a little known science and technology. Today, with the basic framework of public understanding in place, we are focusing on advancing beneficial nanotechnology. Our efforts are turned to guiding nanotechnology research, public policy and education to address six major challenges that humanity faces.***Its six goals are:
1. Providing Renewable Clean Energy
2. Supplying Clean Water Globally
3. Improving Health and Longevity
4. Healing and Preserving the Environment
5. Making Information Technology Available to All
6. Enabling Space Development
In the next installment we shall speak about the different microscopes that are used to map out atomic surfaces as well as more of the world transformational future that awaits us with the assured development of Nanotechnology.
In case some of you are having trouble with some of the terms of nanotechnology, there is a glossary here.