This is not what you'd normally expect to see in a press release from a U.S. government scientist:
The first real steps towards building a microscopic device that can construct nano machines have been taken by US researchers. Writing in [a] peer-reviewed publication, researchers describe an early prototype for a nanoassembler.
In his 1986 book, The Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler set down the long-term aim of nanotechnology -- to create an assembler, a microscopic device, a robot, that could construct yet smaller devices from individual atoms and molecules.
For the last two decades, those researchers who recognized the potential have taken diminutive steps towards such a nanoassembler. Those taking the top-down approach have seen the manipulative power of the atomic force microscope (AFM), a machine that can observe and handle single atoms, as one solution. Those taking the bottom-up approach are using chemistry to build molecular machinery.
However, neither the top-down nor the bottom-up approach is yet to fulfill Drexler's prophecy of functional nanobots that can construct other machines on a scale of just a few billionths of a meter. . .
Yet the rewards could be enormous with the ultimate potential of creating a technology that can construct almost any material from atoms and molecules from super-strong but incredibly lightweight construction materials to a molecular computer or even nanobots that can make other nanobots to solve global problems, such as food, water, and energy shortages.
Jason Gorman, contact person on the announcement, is with the Intelligent Systems Division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Here's more from the release:
Gorman and his colleagues at NIST have taken a novel approach to building a nanoassembler and reveal details in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Nanomanufacturing. "Our demonstration is still a work in progress," says Gorman, "you might describe it as a 'proto-prototype' for a nanoassembler."
The NIST system consists of four Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) devices positioned around a centrally located port on a chip into which the starting materials can be placed Each nanomanipulator is composed of positioning mechanism with an attached nanoprobe. By simultaneously controlling the position of each of these nanoprobes, the team can use them to cooperatively assemble a complex structure on a very small scale. "If successful, this project will result in an on-chip nanomanufacturing system that would be the first of its kind," says Gorman. . .
Importantly, once the team has optimized their design they anticipate that nanoassembly systems could be made for around $400 per chip at present costs. This is thousands of times cheaper than macro-scale systems such as the AFM.
Gorman points out that it should be possible to have multiple nanoassemblers working simultaneously to manufacture next generation nanoelectronics. At the moment, his team is interested in developing the platform for scientists and engineers to make cutting edge discoveries in nanotechnology. "Very few effective tools exist for manipulation and assembly at the nano-scale, thereby limiting the growth of this critical field," he says.
Assuming this concept can be put into practice, as Gorman and his team expect, it will represent a significant step forward in enabling technologies for molecular manufacturing. It's not all the way there, of course. In fact, several more steps will be required, which may take at least another five to ten years.
But this is an important advance, especially since it comes from within the U.S. scientific community, which up until now has been largely dismissive of molecular manufacturing theory.