Applying the power of nanotechnology to imagine and design better products of all types is part of CRN's activities. The involvement of Chris Phoenix, our Director of Research, in a grant project for NASA's Institute of Advanced Concepts has received significant coverage.
But the best story on the subject is by Kimberlee Roth, at Michigan Smalltech. Her report goes into some depth to describe the work performed by Chris, together with Tihamer Toth-Fejel at General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems.
Their idea has been to build something akin to a desktop printer, explained Toth-Fejel, that would produce complex, three-dimensional, human-scale products made from nanosize input parts. But the execution is, not surprisingly, complex and yet to be demonstrated.
Toward that end, the two have been working on the design of nanomachines made of silsesquioxanes, or hybrid inorganic-organic composites in cubic form, from which molecules of silicon hang on each corner. The cubic cage with silicon atoms at the corners is connected by atoms of oxygen, forming a unit of one form of silica, Toth-Fejel explained.
"That's the basic building block," Toth-Fejel said. “We'll take one cube and put some fancy organic molecules on each corner and attach another cube to that. You do it again so you have two layers of silica, and this second-generation cube has certain active sites. Under the right conditions, and if you position them correctly, you can use them as building blocks. It's like LEGOs at the nanoscale."
In cooperation with scientists at the University of Michigan, Tihamer and Chris have begun designing a detailed process to create these nanoscale building blocks. It's exciting work, with significant applications for space exploration and other areas as well.
The benefits are many, added Phoenix, including the ability to slash the transport and storage costs associated with manufacturing.
"One manufacturing system could rapidly make a broad range of products, including new factories, where and when they're needed," Phoenix said. "Due to scaling laws, small precise devices have higher performance. A nanofactory should be able to build motors a million times smaller and computers a billion times more compact and efficient. Well-formed covalent solids also should have far higher strength -- 100-times that of steel or better. Put together, these benefits look revolutionary, even disruptive."
Detractors say it's impossible. Phoenix says he's seen plenty of -- and done his own --calculations that prove it's not.
Toth-Fejel agrees. "I'm hopeful that within five years we'll have some pretty impressive tools, assuming funding. I used to think it would be 15 years, but that's no longer the case now."