Nanotechnology - Study Guide

Study Guide


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. 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." The image is shown below:

  • 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. 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 will still 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.

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. 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.

Potential Benefits

  • Manufacturing
    • Precision Manufacturing
    • Material Reuse
    • Miniaturization
  • Medicine
    • Pharmaceutical Creation
    • Disease Treatment
    • Nanomachine-assisted Surgery
  • Environment
    • Toxin Cleanup
    • Recycling
    • Resource Consumption Reduction
Potential Dangers
  • Weapons
    • Miniature Weapons and Explosives
    • Disassemblers for Military Use
  • Rampant Nanomachines
    • The Gray Goo Scenario
    • Self Replicating Nanomachines
  • Surveillance
    • Monitoring
    • Tracking

Ethical Issues and Analysis

  • Nanotechnology will give us more "god-like" powers
  • It has the potential to eliminate other ethical issues (e.g. assembling beef instead of slaughtering cows, constructing cells rather than getting them from reproduction, etc...)
  • May lead to undetectable surveillance, Right to Privacy could be jeopardized

Possible Actions

  • Regulated Nanotechnology R&D should be employed in order to force the research community to seriously consider the potential consequences of nanotechnology
  • Nanomachines should only be specialized, not general purpose
  • Nanomachines should not be self replicating
  • Nanomachines should not be made to use an abundant natural compound as fuel
  • Nanomachines should be tagged so that they can be tracked

"Ethical Issues and Analysis," "Possible Actions," "Possible Benefits" and "Possible Dangers" lists taken
from The Ethics of Nanotechnology - Chen, Andrew

Building with Atoms - "How Stuff Works"

Index of Topics - Study Guide