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Molecular Nanotechnology

Molecular assembler
Molecular machine
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K. Eric Drexler
Engines of Creation

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This box: view · emerging technology field of creating machines or robots whose components are at or close to the microscopic scale of a nanometer (10−9 meters).[1][2][3] More specifically, nanorobotics refers to the nanotechnology engineering discipline of designing and building nanorobots, with devices ranging in size from 0.1-10 micrometers and constructed of nanoscale or molecular components.[4][5] The names nanobots, nanoids, nanites, nanomachines or nanomites have also been used to describe these devices currently under research and development.[6][7]

Nanomachines are largely in the research-and-development phase,[8] but some primitive molecular machines have been tested. An example is a sensor having a switch approximately 1.5 nanometers across, capable of counting specific molecules in a chemical sample. The first useful applications of nanomachines might be in medical technology,[9] which could be used to identify and destroy cancer cells.[10] [11] Another potential application is the detection of toxic chemicals, and the measurement of their concentrations, in the environment. Recently, Rice University has demonstrated a single-molecule car developed by a chemical process and including buckyballs for wheels. It is actuated by controlling the environmental temperature and by positioning a scanning tunneling microscope tip.

Another definition is a robot that allows precision interactions with nanoscale objects, or can manipulate with nanoscale resolution. Such devices are more related to Microscopy or Scanning probe microscopy, instead of the description of nanorobots as molecular machine. Following the microscopy definition even a large apparatus such as an atomic force microscope can be considered a nanorobotic instrument when configured to perform nanomanipulation. For this perspective, macroscale robots or microrobots that can move with nanoscale precision can also be considered nanorobots.


Nanorobotics theory

Since nanorobots would be microscopic in size, it would probably be necessary for very large numbers of them to work together to perform microscopic and macroscopic tasks. These nanorobot swarms, both those incapable of replication (as in utility fog) and those capable of unconstrained replication in the natural environment (as in grey goo and its less common variants[clarification needed]), are found in many science fiction stories, such as the Borg nanoprobes in Star Trek and The Outer Limits episode The New Breed.

Some proponents of nanorobotics, in reaction to the grey goo scare scenarios that they earlier helped to propagate, hold the view that nanorobots capable of replication outside of a restricted factory environment do not form a necessary part of a purported productive nanotechnology, and that the process of self-replication, if it were ever to be developed, could be made inherently safe. They further assert that their current plans for developing and using molecular manufacturing do not in fact include free-foraging replicators.[12][13]

The most detailed theoretical discussion of nanorobotics, including specific design issues such as sensing, power communication, navigation, manipulation, locomotion, and onboard computation, has been presented in the medical context of nanomedicine by Robert Freitas. Some of these discussions remain at the level of unbuildable generality and do not approach the level of detailed engineering.



The joint use of nanoelectronics, photolithography, and new biomaterials provides a possible approach to manufacturing nanorobots for common medical applications, such as for surgical instrumentation, diagnosis and drug delivery.[14][15][16] This method for manufacturing on nanotechnology scale is currently in use in the electronics industry.[17] So, practical nanorobots should be integrated as nanoelectronics devices, which will allow tele-operation and advanced capabilities for medical instrumentation.[18][19]


Nubot is an abbreviation for "nucleic acid robots". Nubots are synthetic robotics devices at the nanoscale. Representative nubots include the several DNA walkers reported by Nadrian Seeman's group at NYU, Niles Pierce's group at Caltech, John Reif's group at Duke University, Chengde Mao's group at Purdue, and Andrew Turberfield's group at the University of Oxford.

Positional nanoassembly

Nanofactory Collaboration,[20] founded by Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle in 2000 and involving 23 researchers from 10 organizations and 4 countries, focuses on developing a practical research agenda[21] specifically aimed at developing positionally-controlled diamond mechanosynthesis and a diamondoid nanofactory that would have the capability of building diamondoid medical nanorobots.

Bacteria based

This approach proposes the use of biological microorganisms, like the bacterium Escherichia coli.[22] Thus the model uses a flagellum for propulsion purposes. The use of electromagnetic fields are normally applied to control the motion of this kind of biological integrated device.

Open technology

A document with a proposal on nanobiotech development using open technology approaches has been addressed to the United Nations General Assembly.[23] According to the document sent to the UN, in the same way that Open Source has in recent years accelerated the development of computer systems, a similar approach should benefit the society at large and accelerate nanorobotics development. The use of nanobiotechnology should be established as a human heritage for the coming generations, and developed as an open technology based on ethical practices for peaceful purposes. Open technology is stated as a fundamental key for such an aim.

Nanorobot Race

In the same ways that technology development had the space race and nuclear arms race, a race for nanorobots is occurring.[24][25][26][27] There is plenty of ground allowing nanorobots to be included among the emerging technologies.[28] Some of the reasons are that large corporations, such as General Electric, Hewlett-Packard and Northrop Grumman have been recently working in the development and research of nanorobots;[29][30] surgeons are getting involved and starting to propose ways to apply nanorobots for common medical procedures;[31] universities and research institutes were granted funds by government agencies exceeding $2 billion towards research developing nanodevices for medicine;[32][33] bankers are also strategically investing with the intent to acquire beforehand rights and royalties on future nanorobots commercialization.[34] Some aspects of nanorobot litigation and related issues linked to monopoly have already arisen.[35][36][37] A large number of patents has been granted recently on nanorobots, done mostly for patent agents, companies specialized solely on building patent portfolio, and lawyers. After a long series of patents and eventually litigations, see for example the Invention of Radio or about the War of Currents, emerging fields of technology tend to become a monopoly, which normally is dominated by large corporations.[38]

Potential applications


Potential applications for nanorobotics in medicine include early diagnosis and targeted drug-delivery for cancer,[39][40][41] biomedical instrumentation[42] surgery,[43][44] pharmacokinetics[45] monitoring of diabetes,[46][47][48] and health care.

In such plans, future medical nanotechnology is expected to employ nanorobots injected into the patient to perform work at a cellular level. Such nanorobots intended for use in medicine should be non-replicating, as replication would needlessly increase device complexity, reduce reliability, and interfere with the medical mission.

See also

  • Nanoscale networks


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