Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Nanofactories - The Holy Grail Of Nanotechnology

CleanRooms has a must-read article on nanofactories... the machines that will initiate the next industrial revolution and turn our lives upside down in about a decade or so.

Nanofactories: Glimpsing the future of process technology:

Nanofactories-manufacturing systems that work on the atomic scale-are gradually moving from science fiction to science fact and one day could be used to build all manner of items such as drugs, semiconductor chips and even cell-sized robots that patrol the human body. But researchers first need to learn how to build a nanofactory, which means learning how to build the molecular components that will power it. With mounting theoretical and experimental evidence, proponents say these goals are within reach and will usher in a revolution in high-technology manufacturing.


Proponents say the implications for nanoscale manufacturing are nothing short of revolutionary. Because they build product molecule by molecule-even products on the macro scale-nanofactories will offer unprecedented gains in manufacturing speed, precision and energy efficiency. We read of surgical robots smaller than a human cell, introduced into the human body to remove tumors, repair cells or better oxygenate the blood. Supercomputing marvels such as the Earth Simulator, currently housed in a building roughly the size of a football field, could be built the size of a grain of rice and run on two watts of power, according to one leading voice in the field. Rapid prototyping will speed up research and development significantly, a particular concern in aerospace, where prototypes can take years and millions of dollars to build. Molecular manufacturing will allow a new airplane with revised specifications to be built in a day or two.


The only way to build a nanofactory is with another nanofactory. This involves the concept of exponential manufacturing, where a set of tools builds an equivalent or improved set of tools. This is essential to being able to scale up systems and it works in theory, Phoenix says, because the inputs to the process include not just the structure of the first tool, but the information used to control it. Because of the sequential, repetitive nature of molecular manufacturing, the amount of information that can be fed to the process is virtually unlimited, meaning large amounts of identical things can be built with one information stream. A tool of finite complexity, controlled externally, can build things far more physically complex than itself; the complexity is limited only by the quality of the design. Thus, repetitive manufacturing affords tremendous flexibility, as well.


For some applications, notably nanomedicine, manufacturing systems and their products will be designed to remain on the molecular level. Nanomedicine, says Freitas, involves the use of three conceptual classes of molecularly precise structures: nonbiological nanomaterials and nanoparticles, biotechnology-based materials and devices, and nonbiological devices including nanorobotics. It is in this third category that Freitas has concentrated most of his energies. “Medical nanorobots small enough to go into the human bloodstream will be very complex machines,” he says. “We don’t know exactly how to build them yet, but the overall pathway from here to there is slowly starting to come into focus.”

Two promising nanorobot designs developed by Freitas include respirocytes and microbivores. The respirocyte is an artificial red blood cell, a spherical 1 μm diamondoid, 1,000 atm pressure vessel with active pumping powered by endogenous serum glucose (see Fig. 4). It will be able to deliver more than 200 times more oxygen to tissues per unit volume than natural red cells and will be able to manage carbonic acidity. Primary applications will include transfusable blood substitution; partial treatment for anemia, perinatal/neonatal and lung disorders; enhancement of cardiovascular/neurovascular procedures, tumor therapies and diagnostics; prevention of asphyxia; and artificial breathing. The microbivore is an artificial mechanical phagocyte (white blood cell) whose primary function is to destroy microbiological pathogens found in the human bloodstream using a digest-and-discharge protocol. It is an oblate, spheroidal nanomedical device made of 610 billion precisely arranged structural atoms.


“I would not be surprised if the first deployment of such systems occurred during the 2020s,” Freitas says.


Freitas’s prognostication: “There is a lot that prenanorobotic nanotechnology-based medicine can do to improve human health. In the next five years, the molecular tools of nanomedicine will include biologically active materials with well-defined nanoscale structures, including those produced by genetic engineering. In the next five or ten years or so, knowledge gained from genomics and proteomics will make possible new treatments tailored to specific individuals, new drugs targeting pathogens whose genomes have been decoded, and stem cell treatments. But the advent of medical nanorobotics will represent a huge leap forward."


“We have never had a general-purpose manufacturing technology, one that has the ability to increase product power by six orders of magnitude in less than a decade,” Phoenix says. “The implications of this are enormous and will require careful planning by governments and the scientific community, now and in the years to come.”

The original article is quite lengthy, but well worth the read. I only copypasted the crowd-pleasers from it. For anybody interested in technical details, read the source.

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