Virtually every previous technological improvement has been accomplished by making things smaller and more precise. But as the scales at which we work get smaller and smaller, we approach limits imposed by physics. The smallest unit of matter we can build with is the atom, or combinations of atoms known as molecules. The earthshaking insight of nanotechnology is that, when we reach this scale, we can reverse direction and begin building from the bottom up, making products by placing individual atoms and molecules exactly where we want them.
Nanotechnology has several meanings and encompasses many fields. The U.S. National Science Foundation defines it as: "Research and technology development in the length scale of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers." By this loose definition, some types of nanotechnology exist already, producing specialized materials and components including powders, films, and chemicals. Not spectacular, perhaps, but attractive to investors because many products will be improved significantly.
Progress in this basic area will enable the more transformative kind of nanotechnology, known as molecular manufacturing -- combining chemistry and fabrication to produce precise machines and manufacturing systems at the nanometer scale. This is the most promising, threatening, and controversial aspect of nanotechnology.
A recent report prepared for NATO said, "Theoretical and computational models indicate that molecular manufacturing systems are possible—that they do not violate existing physical laws. These models also give us a feel for what a molecular manufacturing system might look like. Today, scientists are devising numerous tools and techniques that will be needed to transform nanotechnology from computer models into reality. While most remain in the realm of theory, there appears to be no fundamental barrier to their development."
The fundamental ideas for molecular manufacturing were introduced more than 40 years ago in a famous talk titled "There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom". In this speech, Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said, "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom."
Feynman also said, "I want to build a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously." That’s exactly the way today’s leading theorists plan to build things from the bottom up -- by using billions of identical tiny machines, all operating in parallel under external computer control. It’s a startlingly original concept called a nanofactory, and it seems to be coming closer to reality.
Until recently, it has been assumed that although molecular manufacturing will be developed eventually, the extreme technical challenges place it far in the future, perhaps 30 to 50 years away. Now, however, some analyses of technical feasibility conclude that a time frame of 2010 to 2015 is a plausible estimate for the development of nanofactories.
As today’s nanotechnology steadily advances to the point that large-scale manufacturing becomes possible with atomic precision and virtually no waste -- then things will rapidly change. Working directly with atoms, even a small portable manufacturing system could contain the equipment to duplicate itself on command as cheaply as building any other product. This leads to exponential dispersion of customized manufacturing capability.
Portable, programmable manufacturing systems -- nanofactories -- will revolutionize commerce and industry, and by extension, all of society, but probably not without negative effects. There are both benefits and dangers at hand, and as we build bridges to progress, we must also build bridges to safety.