Mechanosynthesis: Building New Materials with Nanotechnology - dummies

Mechanosynthesis: Building New Materials with Nanotechnology

By Earl Boysen, Nancy C. Muir, Desiree Dudley, Christine Peterson

Nanotech researchers are working on building molecular assemblers that use tiny manipulators to precisely position atoms and molecules to build an object from the atoms up.

When you use millions or trillions of such molecular assemblers in parallel in a process called massively parallel assembly, you speed up the building process. The idea is to have the first molecular assembler that you construct build another, and then that new assembler builds another, and so on until there are enough molecular assemblers to build the entire object.

These molecular assemblers are similar to biological machines in your cells called ribosomes. Ribosomes assemble amino acid molecules to construct new proteins, just as molecular assemblers would assemble various atoms or molecules. To differentiate between biologically based molecular assembly and mechanically based molecular assembly, people sometimes refer to the latter as mechanosynthesis.

If you want a sneak preview of one person’s vision of mechanosynthesis, imagine a molecular assembly process in which two carbon atoms are deposited on a diamond surface. Various researchers are optimistic about the potential of this nanoassembly process, but it will probably be quite a while before this vision works out.

Depositing carbon atoms in a molecular assembly process. [Credit: Image © 2004 Robert A. Freit
Credit: Image © 2004 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved
Depositing carbon atoms in a molecular assembly process.

By building an object atom by atom or molecule by molecule, mechanosynthesis can produce new materials with improved performance over existing materials. For example, an airplane strut must be very strong but also lightweight. A molecular fabricator could build the strut atom by atom out of carbon, making a lightweight diamond-like material called a diamondoid that is stronger than a diamond.

Remember that a diamond is merely a lattice of carbon atoms held together by bonds between the atoms. By placing carbon atoms, one after the other, in the shape of the strut, such a fabricator could create a diamondoid, which is lighter weight and stronger than any metal.

Current mechanosynthesis research is focused on using carbon atoms to make diamondoid structures that can be used to make useful products such as lightweight airplanes and cars. After researchers have perfected mechanosynthesis with carbon atoms, they should be able to expand the technique. They might be able to add selected atoms to carbon that could result in products such as miniscule computer chips and fully functional nanorobots.

In fact, we are carbon-based life forms. Carbon combined with several other atoms make up the biological molecules in our bodies, which just goes to show that carbon combined with other atoms can produce very versatile results.

When mechanosynthesis becomes a reality, it will have applications across society. Although the effect mechanosynthesis will have can’t be precisely forecasted, here are a few possible examples:

  • Making integrated circuits atom by atom, resulting in much smaller computer chips.

  • Building structural components, such as the wings of aircraft, from diamondoids. It should be possible to make cars, airplanes, spacecraft, and other objects that weigh a fraction of their current weight.

  • Making molecular replicators that can manufacture most of the material goods you need.

  • Making nanorobots that can be used in medicine.

    A 12-arm nanorobot which, in swarms, could join to build virtually anything. [Credit: Courtesy of J
    Credit: Courtesy of J. Storrs Hall
    A 12-arm nanorobot which, in swarms, could join to build virtually anything.