- ENTER THE ASSEMBLER
This is the end-game of the nanotechnological revolution. What it seeks is nothing less than perfectibility - the ability to construct literally anything that the laws of physics permit to exist, with absolute precision.
Imagine the capability of producing virtually unlimited quantities of high-performance products directly from a computer representation into reality in hours or even minutes, with a completely automated desktop size 3D-printer type device. Appliance sized (and larger) desktop fabricators will work similarly to an inkjet printer. Cartridges supply any of up to a few dozen elements to molecular machines guided by a nanocomputer to produce a three-dimensional physical product directly from blueprints in a few hours or less.
A desktop fabricator (fab-lab for short) would take the emphasis off of material goods and place prime importance on information. Data may become the most valuable commodity of all, in time. With this kind of technology, the data that encodes for a particular material item could be disseminated all around the world within minutes of the release of a new design, via the Internet. This is effectively a 3D fax machine fit for the 21st Century, and would allow virtually instant worldwide distribution of physical items in digital form.
"Molecular manufacturing will eventually transform our relationship to molecules and matter as thoroughly as the computer changed our relationship to bits and information. It will enable precise, inexpensive control of the structure of matter."
- Neil Jacobstein, Chairman, IMM
ENTER THE ASSEMBLER
The assembler, the sine qua non of nanotechnology, is another idea borrowed from science fiction. This is essentially the fictional "replicator" of Star-Trek. A Molecular Assembler would be a desktop-sized device (or larger) capable of building quite literally anything that can be built (including another assembler) - with absolute precision - out of atoms.
"On the molecular scale, you find it's reasonable to have a machine that does a million steps per second; a mechanical system that works at computer speeds."
- K. Eric Drexler
Forces such as inertia and gravity have much less of a hold on matter at the nano scale than they do at larger scales that we are more familiar with. When dealing with very few or individual atoms, it becomes possible to manipulate them very quickly - perhaps a million or even a billion times per second. A robotic arm a meter in length can only move back and forth a few times per second at most before the force of inertia working against it becomes too great, however a manipulator arm just a few nanometers in length can pick up and position individual atoms or molecules much faster. In an assembler, feedstock materials would supply atoms to many parallel computer controlled manipulators that would position them individually to form blocks of, say, 8 atoms (2 x 2 x 2 atom blocks.) Finished blocks would be passed to the next level of production where larger manipulators would position the 8 atom blocks to construct 2 x 2 x 2 block, larger blocks. Each finished block from this second level of production would contain 8 blocks each made up of 8 atoms for 64 atoms apiece. The third level finished blocks would contain 8 x 8 x 8 (512) atoms. The fourth would contain 8 x 8 x 8 x 8 (4096), and so on. There may be as many levels of production as necessary to make products of various sizes. If there are 4 times fewer manipulators on each successive production level, moving 8 times as many atoms, the manipulators on each level would only need to move one eighth as quickly as those on the preceeding level. Each level must construct completed blocks in the same amount of time, so, as inertia increases, the speed at which the manipulator arms move can decrease accordingly. Such a massively parallel system would be able to produce large, atomically precise products in a short amount of time. The blocks output from each successive level would contain eight times more atoms than blocks from the level preceeding. It is this geometric progression that holds the key to bridging the vast divide between the nano and macro realms. In order to produce a several kg item with 1.2 octillion atoms in it, an assembler with over 30 levels, each producing blocks containing 8 times as many atoms as the preceeding level, would be required.
"The really big difference is that what you make with a molecular machine can be completely precise, down to the tiniest degree of detail that can exist in the world." - K. Eric Drexler