Nanotechnology.com is an establishment-oriented website that follows the NNI party line -- which says molecular manufacturing, as envisioned by CRN and others, is either impossible to do or so difficult to achieve that it is many decades away.
So, it was interesting to see how that website would report on the remarkable progress of Rice University researchers in creating molecular machines, and working toward "bottom-up molecular manufacturing."
Although the project required eight years from planning to completion, the results are a valuable achievement for molecular scale design and molecular manufacturing. But don't get excited about molecular nanorobots just yet. Rolling around is one thing, but doing more complex tasks are quite another.
Then, trying to find something to criticize, they make a very strange argument:
The nanocar synthesis uses traditional chemistry to attach parts together. There is no molecular self-assembly, a molecular level technique that has over the past decade been the route of choice to build "bottom-up" nanostructures. At temperatures of 175°C (the temperature that the nanocar translates), self-assembled structures might easily fall apart because of the thermal energy. So if the nanocar were part of a larger assembly of structures that were not covalently linked, the assembly would probably cease to exist and break down into simple molecules.
Self-assembly has been the preferred route, up until now, for creating nanoscale structures. But proponents of mechanosynthesis have never included self-assembly as a requirement for their designs to work. Covalent linkage is the key to building more rigid and longer-lasting parts, including whole nanofactories. So the above 'criticism' is really an endorsement of molecular manufacturing, although they try to cast it as exposing a weakness. Strange.
So where do we go next? Can we create molecular scale gears and widgets that operate just like normal sized gears and widgets? As the nanocar work has shown us, we most likely will be able to create those individual molecules, but both easy mass production and controlling those parts to do useful work will be the challenges.
This really is a significant concession, even though it's worded to sound dubious. The Rice researchers have clearly shown that working machines can be built using covalent chemistry, and without enzymes in solution. Molecular scale "gears and widgets" are already on the drawing table, and there seems little doubt that they can be made to work. Sure, it's a challenge, but with the accelerating pace of progress, "easy mass production" is not far away.
CRN has always predicted that the last stages of advanced nanotechnology -- achieving exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing -- will happen quickly. When the parts start falling into place, the final steps from the first fabricator to the first nanofactory and then to a flood of products could be only a matter of months. We must not allow this to catch us by surprise.