Over the past few days, we've gotten a lot of requests in our blog comments, on the order of: "Sir pls send info and papers about nanotech."
Rather than respond to these requests individually, this post will hopefully serve as a generally useful response for people who are new to nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing.
Nanotechnology, in the broad modern usage, refers to anything really small that's interesting in some way. How small is really small? More or less, it means too small to see with an ordinary microscope--smaller than bacteria--a few dozen to a few thousand atoms wide.
What is interesting? Well, at that scale, a lot of interesting things can happen. Electrons, the smallest and most active parts of atoms, may "see the walls" of structures their atoms are incorporated in, and react in all sorts of technically interesting ways. Materials that wouldn't normally go together--literally, as different as chalk and cheese--may form structures as hard as abalone shell. Interesting nanoscale phenomena are too numerous to list in an introductory post, but one more should be noted: the smaller you make computer circuits, the faster and more efficiently they work, and the more can be packed into a chip.
Molecular manufacturing is not just about small stuff, but about building small functional stuff using small machines. Small things work faster and more efficiently... so it should be possible to make extremely high-performance factories by shrinking the machines a million times--and redesigning some of them, of course! Most importantly, rather than starting with a chunk of material and chopping off large imprecise pieces, a nanofactory would start with small molecules and stick them together to build up a product, without wasted pieces, and with near-perfect precision. The product, being made of small pieces, would have all the nanoscale performance benefits; however, it would not have to be small, because a nanofactory would contain vast numbers of automated fabrication machines working in parallel.
The Nanotech-Now.com website is an excellent place to start. They have a press kit written for non-technical people, including the history of the word "nanotechnology" and brief explorations of the various technologies involved, as well as their implications. They also have a somewhat more technical introduction and some additional informative pages.
CRN has an introductory page explaining molecular manufacturing.
A number of the basic concepts, plus pointers to US nano programs, can be found here.
A Google search like "Intro to nanotechnology" will find other useful pages.
We hope this provides useful starting points for students and others wanting to learn more about nanoscale research, nanoscale technologies, and molecular manufacturing.