How Nanotechnology Will Work

June 11, 2001

How will nanotechnology change the way goods are manufactured? Learn how nanomachines will manufacture products, and what impact nanotechnology will have on various industries in the coming decades.

By Kevin Bonsor

Originally published 2000 at Published on June 11, 2001.

Nanotechnology is an umbrella term that covers many areas of research dealing with objects that are measured in nanometers. A nanometer (nm) is a billionth of a meter, or a millionth of a millimeter.

In the early 20th century, Henry Ford built a car manufacturing plant on a 2,000-acre tract of land along the Rouge River in Michigan. Built to mass-produce automobiles more efficiently, the Rouge housed the equipment for developing each phase of a car, including blast furnaces, a steel mill and a glass plant. More than 90 miles of railroad track and conveyor belts kept Ford’s car assembly line running. The Rouge model was lauded as the most efficient method of production at a time when bigger meant better.

The size of Ford’s assembly plant would look strange to those born and raised in the 21st century. In the next 50 years, machines will get increasingly smaller–so small that thousands of these tiny machines would fit into the period at the end of this sentence. Within a few decades, we will use these nanomachines to manufacture consumer goods at the molecular level, piecing together one atom or molecule at a time to make baseballs, telephones and cars. This is the goal of nanotechnology. And as televisions, airplanes and computers revolutionized the world in the last century, scientists claim that nanotechnology will have an even more profound effect on the next century.

Building with Atoms

Atoms are the building blocks for all matter in our universe. You and everything around you are made of atoms. Nature has perfected the science of manufacturing matter molecularly. For instance, our bodies are assembled in a specific manner from millions of living cells. Cells are nature’s nanomachines. Humans still have a lot to learn about the idea of constructing materials on such a small scale. Consumer goods that we buy are made by pushing piles of atoms together in a bulky, imprecise manner. Imagine if we could manipulate each individual atom of an object. That’s the basic idea of nanotechnology, and many scientists believe that we are only a few decades away from achieving it.

Nanotechnology is a hybrid science combining engineering and chemistry. Atoms and molecules stick together because they have complementary shapes that lock together, or charges that attract. Just like with magnets, a positively charged atom will stick to a negatively charged atom. As millions of these atoms are pieced together by nanomachines, a specific product will begin to take shape. The goal of nanotechnology is to manipulate atoms individually and place them in a pattern to produce a desired structure. There are three steps to achieving nanotechnology-produced goods:

  • Scientists must be able to manipulate individual atoms. This means that they will have to develop a technique to grab single atoms and move them to desired positions. In 1990, IBM researchers showed that it is possible to manipulate single atoms. They positioned 35 xenon atoms on the surface of a nickel crystal, using an atomic force microscopy instrument. These positioned atoms spelled out the letters “IBM.” You can view this nano-logo on this page.
  • The next step will be to develop nanoscopic machines, called assemblers, that can be programmed to manipulate atoms and molecules at will. It would take thousands of years for a single assembler to produce any kind of material one atom at a time. So, trillions of assemblers will be needed to develop products in a viable time frame.
  • In order to create enough assemblers to build consumer goods, some nanomachines, called replicators, will be programmed to build more assemblers. Trillions of assemblers and replicators will fill an area smaller than a cubic millimeter, and still will be too small for us to see with the naked eye. Assemblers and replicators will work together like hands to automatically construct products, and will eventually replace all traditional labor methods. This will vastly decrease manufacturing costs, thereby making consumer goods plentiful, cheaper and stronger. In the next section you’ll find out how nanotechnology will impact every facet of society, from medicine to computers.

A New Industrial Revolution

In January 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton requested a $227-million increase in the government’s investment in nanotechnology research and development, which includes a major new initiative called the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). This initiative nearly doubles America’s 2000-budget investment in nanotechnology, bringing the total invested in nanotechnology to $497 million for the 2001 national budget. In a written statement, White House officials said that “nanotechnology is the new frontier and its potential impact is compelling.”

About 70 percent of the new nanotechnology funding will go to university research efforts, which will help meet the demand for workers with nanoscale science and engineering skills. The initiative will also fund the projects of several governmental agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Much of the research will take more than 20 years to complete, but the process itself could touch off a new industrial revolution. Nanotechnology is likely to change the way almost everything, including medicine, computers and cars, are designed and constructed. Nanotechnology is anywhere from five to 15 years in the future; and we won’t see dramatic changes in our world right away. But let’s take a look at the potential effects of nanotechnology:

  • The first products made from nanomachines will be stronger fibers. Eventually, we will be able to replicate anything, including diamonds, water and food. Famine could be eradicated by machines that fabricate foods to feed the hungry.
  • In the computer industry, the ability to shrink the size of transistors on silicon microprocessors will soon reach its limits. Nanotechnology will be needed to create a new generation of computer components. Molecular computers could contain storage devices capable of storing trillions of bytes of information in a structure the size of a sugar cube.
  • Nanotechnology may have its biggest impact on the medical industry. Patients will drink fluids containing nanorobots programmed to attack and reconstruct the molecular structure of cancer cells and viruses to make them harmless. There’s even speculation that nanorobots could slow or reverse the aging process, and life expectancy could increase significantly. Nanorobots could also be programmed to perform delicate surgeries–such nanosurgeons could work at a level a thousand times more precise than the sharpest scalpel. By working on such a small scale, a nanorobot could operate without leaving the scars that conventional surgery does. Additionally, nanorobots could change your physical appearance. They could be programmed to perform cosmetic surgery, rearranging your atoms to change your ears, nose, eye color or any other physical feature you wish to alter.
  • Nanotechnology has the potential to have a positive effect on the environment. For instance, airborne nanorobots could be programmed to rebuild the thinning ozone layer. Contaminants could be automatically removed from water sources and oil spills could be cleaned up instantly. And manufacturing materials using the bottom-up method of nanotechnology also creates less pollution than conventional manufacturing processes. Our dependence on non-renewable resources would diminish with nanotechnology. Many resources could be constructed by nanomachines. Cutting down trees, mining coal or drilling for oil may no longer be necessary. Resources could simply be constructed by nanomachines.
  • The promises of nanotechnology sound great, don’t they? Maybe even unbelievable? But researchers say that we will achieve these capabilities within the next century. And if nanotechnology is, in fact, achieved, it might be the human race’s greatest scientific achievement yet, completely changing every aspect of the way we live.

copyright 2000