From the Royal Society of Chemistry comes a report on Building Tomorrow's Nanofactory:
UK scientists have been granted £2.5 million to invent a nanomachine that can build materials molecule by molecule.
Such a robot doesn't -- and may never -- exist, though it has been imagined for over half a century. But this autumn, researchers across the UK are starting work towards it, following the funding of three research projects by the Engineering and physical sciences research council.
One of the projects, led by Rasmita Raval at the University of Liverpool, imagines creating a machine that can be instructed by computer to move molecules or atomic clusters as desired. Scanning tunnelling microscopes are already able to nudge atoms over surfaces, and image the result. But the goal now is to move into three dimensions, and to build a structural network of atoms.
This is one of the projects originated by the ambitious IDEAS Factory, convened earlier this year in England, and aimed at this goal:
Can we design and construct a device or scheme that can arrange atoms or molecules according to an arbitrary, user-defined blueprint? This is at the heart of the idea of the software control of matter -- the creation, perhaps, of a 'matter compiler' which will interpret software instructions to output a macroscopic product in which every atom is precisely placed.
They're now starting to put their ideas into action, with experimental efforts funded by the UK government. And if it works... well, let's let them tell us:
"If it works, it will redefine nanotechnology as it should have been," said Lee Cronin, an inorganic chemist at the University of Glasgow -- referring to concepts promoted in the 1980s by US engineer Eric Drexler, who suggested that nanotechnology would create tiny machines dubbed 'assemblers' that could drag atoms and molecules around to make copies of themselves, or other useful devices.
CRN's concern is that technical progress toward building a nanofactory could advance -- in fact, already is advancing -- much faster than work toward understanding and preparing for the technology's serious military, political, social, and environmental implications.