Today was the first of three all-tech-talk days at the "Nano Bootcamp" conference. Quite a brain-stretcher. One of the talks explained how heat works at the quantum level; another, quantum mechanics; a third, magnetism... Of course, in a little over an hour, they couldn't cover the topic completely, but all the talks tied equations to simple-but-accurate descriptions (at least as far as I could tell), and some of the explanations were up-to-date to the point of "We don't yet know exactly how this part works."
From the quantum talk, "Mesoscopic and Nanometer Scale Physics": Quantum motion has been observed in a tiny mechanical vibrating beam. In other words, they've built something small enough that it can't just gradually start moving as they start shaking it; it can only move with certain discrete energy levels. The speaker said that this may even be useful in quantum computers.
From "Electronic & Optical Properties of Materials" and "Thermal Properties of Materials": Very useful explanations of how quantum phenomena such as phonons and electron energy levels give rise to familiar phenomena such as heat and electrical conduction. I won't try to explain them here, and I don't know when I'll use all the new details I learned, but it's always good to have a better understanding of how things work "under the hood." Even though early mechanical nanosystem designs will frequently be able to use less-accurate but easier "classical" models, and will have extremely high performance even if they have to be overdesigned to work around uncertainties, more advanced designs will certainly benefit from deeper analysis.
"Soft & Imprint Lithography" described a way of making micro- and nano-scale rubber stamps and using them to manufacture MEMS-like devices. They can make 60-nanometer structures this way, and they have more than ten ways to create structures, and they can print on curved surfaces. A non-nano use of these things is micro-fluidics: making hair-thin tubes for fluids to flow through. For this application, they can print patterns on a laser printer and go from an idea to fabricated structures in a day. Because the function of micro-fluidic channels arises directly from their structure, a fairly simple, highly parallel fabrication process can convert designs into useful products very quickly. The moral of the story is that in molecular manufacturing mechanical designs, function also arises from structure, and the fabrication process will similarly be highly parallel and well-characterized, and fabrication systems will likewise be able to rapid-prototype a wide range of useful products direct from designs.
Tomorrow I get to learn about mechanics, optics, thermoelectrics...