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Nanotechnology is the process by which objects smaller than 100 nanometers are built
one atom or molecule at a time. Its ultimate goal is to create a Universal Assembler that
takes in raw atoms in one side and delivers finished products out the other.

Nanotechnology was mostly a dream until the invention of the Scanning Tunneling
Microscope and the Atomic Force Microscope. Now it was possible not just to see
individual atoms, but to move them as well. Some technologies are already in use, from
clothing, to cosmetics, to medicine. Of direct impact to the field of computer science is
the expected surge in storage capacity.

It is not too early to consider the ramifications of employing such a revolutionary

technology. As is the case with all new scientific developments, the legal system has not
addressed nanotechnology in any significant manner. Perhaps now is the time to study
any legal ramifications, so the legal and scientific communities can work together to
develop any necessary regulation.


Excellent starting point,

About Nanotechnology

So what exactly is nanotechnology? One of the problems facing nanotechnology is the

confusion about its definition. Most definitions revolve around the study and control of
phenomena and materials at length scales below 100 nm and quite often they make a
comparison with a human hair, which is about 80,000 nm wide. Some definitions include
a reference to molecular systems and devices and nanotechnology 'purists' argue that any
definition of nanotechnology needs to include a reference to "functional systems". The
inaugural issue of Nature Nanotechnology asked 13 researchers from different areas what
nanotechnology means to them and the responses, from enthusiastic to sceptical, reflect a
variety of perspectives.

Molecular Manufacturing

Molecular manufacturing is the name given to the proposal that molecular machine
systems will eventually be able to manufacture most objects, including large objects,
from the molecule up, building complex products with atomic precision.

The proposal that advanced nanotechnology will include artificial molecular machine
systems capable of building complex systems to atomic precision has been controversial
within the scientific community. In general, proponents have argued from the grounds of
theoretical analysis coupled with the existence of multiple plausible implementation
pathways from current technology, while opponents have been unimpressed with
theoretical arguments in the absence of direct experimental demonstration of crucial

What is nanotechnology?

The definition most frequently used by government and industry involves structures,
devices, and systems having novel properties and functions due to the arrangement of
their atoms on the 1 to 100 nanometer scale.

Many fields of endeavor contribute to nanotechnology, including molecular physics,

materials science, chemistry, biology, computer science, electrical engineering, and
mechanical engineering.

Why develop nanotechnology?

Gaining better control over the structure of matter has been a primary project of our
species since we started chipping flint. The quality of all human-made goods depends on
the arrangement of their atoms. The cost of our products depends on how difficult it is for
us to get the atoms and molecules to connect up the way we want them. The amount of
energy used - and pollution created - depends on the methods we use to place and connect
the molecules into a given product. The goal of nanotechnology is to improve our control
over how we build things, so that our products can be of the highest quality and while
causing the lowest environmental impact. Nanotech is even expected to help us heal the
damage our past cruder and dirtier technologies have caused to the biosphere.

Nanotechnology has been identified as essential in solving many of the problems facing
humanity. Specifically, it is the key to addressing the Foresight Nanotech Challenges

Providing Renewable Clean Energy

Supplying Clean Water Globally
Improving Health and Longevity

Healing and Preserving the Environment

Making Information Technology Available To All

Enabling Space Development

How can nanotechnology promise to build products with both extreme precision in
structure, and environmental cleanliness in the production process?

Traditional manufacturing builds in a "top down" fashion, taking a chunk of material and
removing chunks of it - for example, by grinding, or by dissolving with acids - until the
final product part is achieved. The goal of nanotechnology is to instead build in a
"bottom-up" fashion, starting with individual molecules and bringing them together to
form product parts in which every atom is in a precise, designed location. In comparison
with the top-down approach, this method could potentially have much less material left
over, greatly reducing pollution.

In practice, both top-down and bottom-up methods are useful and being actively pursued
at the nanoscale. However, the ultimate goal of building products with atomic precision
will require a bottom-up approach.

How is nanotech different from biotech?

Based on the definition of nanotech given above, biotech can be thought of as a subset of
nanotech - "nature's nanotechnology." Biotech uses the molecular structures, devices, and
systems found in plants and animals to create new molecular products. Nanotech is more
general, not being limited to existing natural structures, devices, and systems, and instead
designing and building new, non-biological ones. These can be quite different: harder,
stronger, tougher, and able to survive a dry or hot environment, unlike biology. For
example, nanotech products can be used to build an automobile or spacecraft.

What results can be expected in the near-term? The mid-term? The long-term?

Nanotech's development can usefully be divided into stages, for example:

1st generation: Passive nanostructures

2nd generation: Active nanostructures
3rd generation: Three-dimensional nanosystems with heterogeneous
4th generation: Heterogeneous molecular nanosystems, where each molecule in
the nanosystem has a specific structure and plays a different role
As this is written, 1st generation products are commercially available, 2nd generation
work is taking place in the laboratory, and later generations are at the computational
experiment and modeling stage.

Examples of 1st through 3rd generation work can be found on the NNI website FAQ. The
4th and later generations will include highly advanced developments such as molecular
manufacturing (also termed productive molecular machine systems) and molecular
nanorobotic systems, including those for use in nanosurgery inside cells, at the molecular

How can this result in a change of function?

One reason is to do with surface area. Nanoparticles have a much bigger surface area-to-
volume ratio than microparticles a thousand times bigger. It is like trying to compare the
surface area of a basketball with the combined surface area of pea-sized balls with the
same total weight of the single basketball.

The pea-sized balls have a surface area many hundreds, indeed thousands of times bigger
than the basketball, and this allows them to interact more easily with the environment. It
is this increased interactivity that can change their functionality and so make them
potentially more dangerous to health or the environment.

"As many chemical reactions occur at surfaces, this means that nanomaterials may be
relatively much more reactive than a similar mass of conventional materials in bulk
form," the Royal Commission said. This suggests that the emphasis on weight alone in
terms of toxicity thresholds may not apply for nanomaterials, it added.

Should the Government call a moratorium on nanotechnology?


* The risks are simply too great to carry on business as usual until we know more

* We have managed perfectly well so far without nanotechnology, so why take the

* If there is any doubt at all, it would do no harm to call a temporary halt until we know


* We already enjoy too many benefits from nanotechnology to be able to

straightforwardly stop now

* The risks are hypothetical and it would be a mistake to stop without harder evidence
that the risk is real
* The potential benefits that are just around the corner far outweigh any possible risks


The uses (and potential abuses) of nanotechnology are staggering. Nobel laureate chemist
Richard E. Smalley, in a presentation to the U.S. House Committee on Science,
Subcommittee on Basic Research, said in 1999: "The impact of nanotechnology on
health, wealth, and lives of people will be at least the equivalent of the combined
influences of microelectronics, medical imaging, computer-aided engineering and man-
made polymers [plastics] developed in this century." Many would call this statement
conservative. Indeed, there is no life, no community, no company or nation which will
not be profoundly affected by this technology.

On the darker side, Admiral David E. Jeremiah, Vice-Chairman (ret.) of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff and the second highest-ranking military officer in the United States, has said that
"military applications of molecular manufacturing [another term for nanotechnology]
have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of
power." Which may explain why the same national laboratories which developed the
atomic and hydrogen bombs are now working to develop nanotechnology. Military or
other applications could do more than change the balance of power: Eric Drexler has
cautioned that an improperly-handled nanotech could "reduce the biosphere to dust in a
matter of days."

Just a few of the many good things this technology will make possible: pollution reversal
(because pollutants can be reduced to their component atoms and recycled); elimination
of disease and genetic defects (because the body's cells and DNA can be altered);
eradication of poverty (because production costs of nearly all products - including food -
will drop to near-zero); microscopic computers faster than today's best supercomputers
(because of radical miniaturization); inexpensive space travel (low production costs for
lighter and stronger materials), and; the indefinite extension of human lifespan (because
cells which grow old or damaged can be completely restored). All of these topics, and
more, will be discussed at length in future columns.


Nanotechnology will make possible the realization of Mankind's noblest aspirations - and
his darkest nightmares. How we handle, or mishandle, nanotech will determine the fate of
this planet, and the destiny of Mankind. Because of this, it is vital that as many people as
possible understand the technology's capabilities, both good and bad - and act to ensure a
safe and prosperous future for humanity.

For as Albert Einstein once said of atomic energy, "there is no secret and there is no
defense; there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and
insistence of the peoples of the world. ... In this lies our only security and our only hope -
we believe that an informed citizenry will act for life and not death."