The second to-be-funded proposal that last week's Ideas Factory generated is a system for manipulating and joining molecules and nanoparticles under direct computer control.
"...positional assembly of molecules and nanoscale building blocks. Computer-directed actuators will be used to drive (with sub-nanometre to sub-Angstrom precision) the elements of a nanosystem along pre-defined and entirely deterministic trajectories, thereby achieving structures not accessible by mimicing natural assembly strategies alone. Linkages and bonding between the building blocks will also be initiated, modulated, and - in some cases - terminated by direct computer control."
Pretty cool. They plan to build a system that uses what they describe as a "nanoscale conveyor belt" to move the building blocks. Responses in the comments following the article hint that they expect this eventually to work in a variety of mediums and temperatures, and that they want a number of different degrees of freedom --n ot just one-dimensional motion. So they plan to move building blocks into position, then bond them by some unspecified -- possibly photochemical -- mechanism.
They don't say much about the mechanisms. But they do plan to build a system that can gather energy (perhaps photons), switch the energy into different pathways, and then output the energy to do something useful. They want to build "an autonomous, abiotic nanomachine." Comments indicate that the energy-switches are supposed to be sensitive to events at the molecular level. So whatever they build should be, in a sense, programmable.
The "conveyor belt" sounds MEMS-like, but the products are not. The intended products are, in fact, quite advanced functional nano-constructions. It sounds like the products are intended to transmit both energy and mechanical force through multiple components in order to create sensor-controlled motion. The most advanced mechanical molecule I've heard of so far has approximately the complexity of a pair of fireplace tongs. So this would be a rather large step forward.
Simply setting the goals they set, for the manufacturing system and the products, is an important step that we expect will inspire other work on advanced nanomachines and computer-controlled mechanical/covalent manufacturing systems.
Once their system is working, it sounds very useful for building and testing a wide range of nanomachines. It should pretty quickly settle a number of questions about how to engineer molecular mechanical systems -- how to predict the properties that various structures will have. And the nanomachines that are built may well be an enabling technology for more advanced molecular manufacturing.