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Nanotechnology Ralph C. Merkle Xerox PARC See for an index of talks Sixth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology November 12-15 Santa Clara, CA

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nanotechnology http nano xerox com nano


Ralph C. Merkle

Xerox PARC

Sixth Foresight Conference on Molecular NanotechnologyNovember 12-15Santa Clara,

Manufactured products are made from atoms.

The properties of those products depend on how those atoms are arranged.



Dirt, water and air


Computer chips


It matters

how atoms are arranged

today s manufacturing methods move atoms in great thundering statistical herds
Today’s manufacturing methods move atoms in great thundering statistical herds
  • Casting
  • Grinding
  • Welding
  • Sintering
  • Lithography

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not anattempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are toobig. Richard Feynman, 1959


Most interesting structures that are at least substantial local minima on a potential energy surface can probably be made one way or another. Richard Smalley Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1996

nanotechnology a k a molecular manufacturing
Nanotechnology(a.k.a. molecular manufacturing)
  • Fabricate most structures that are specified with molecular detail and which are consistent with physical law
  • Get essentially every atom in the right place
  • Inexpensive manufacturing costs (~10-50 cents/kilogram)

terminological caution
Terminological caution

The word “nanotechnology” has become very popular. It can be used indiscriminately to refer to almost any research area where some dimension is less than a micron (1,000 nanometers) in size.

Example: sub-micron lithography


Possible arrangements of atoms

What we can make today

(not to scale)





We don’t have

molecular manufacturing today.

We must develop fundamentally new capabilities.


What we can make today

(not to scale)

“... the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises ... from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

from The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli

we ll start a major project to develop nanotechnology when we answer yes to three questions
We’ll start a major project to develop nanotechnology when we answer “yes” to three questions:
  • Is it feasible?
  • Is it valuable?
  • Can we do things today to speed it’s development?



Core molecular




















Overview of the development of molecular nanotechnology









two more fundamental ideas
Two more fundamental ideas
  • Self replication (for low cost)
  • Programmable positional control (to make molecular parts go where we want them to go)

Von Neumann architecture for a self replicating system






Drexler’s architecture for an assembler





Positional device

Tip chemistry

illustration of an assembler
Illustration of an assembler


Advanced Automation for Space Missions

Proceedings of the 1980 NASA/ASEE Summer Study

The theoretical concept of machine duplication is well developed. There are several alternative strategies by which machine self-replication can be carried out in a practical engineering setting.

a c program that prints out an exact copy of itself

A C program that prints out an exact copy of itself

main(){char q=34, n=10,*a="main() {char q=34,n=10,*a=%c%s%c; printf(a,q,a,q,n);}%c";printf(a,q,a,q,n);}

For more information, see the Recursion Theorem:


Complexity of self replicating systems


  • C program 808
  • Von Neumann's universal constructor 500,000
  • Internet worm (Robert Morris, Jr., 1988) 500,000
  • Mycoplasma capricolum 1,600,000
  • E. Coli 9,278,442
  • Drexler's assembler 100,000,000
  • Human 6,400,000,000
  • NASA Lunar
    • Manufacturing Facility over 100,000,000,000

how cheap
How cheap?
  • Potatoes, lumber, wheat and other agricultural products are examples of products made using a self replicating manufacturing base. Costs of roughly a dollar per pound are common.
  • Molecular manufacturing will make almost any product for a dollar per pound or less, independent of complexity. (Design costs, licensing costs, etc. not included)
how strong
How strong?
  • Diamond has a strength-to-weight ratio over 50 times that of steel or aluminium alloy
  • Structural (load bearing) mass can be reduced by about this factor
  • When combined with reduced cost, this will have a major impact on aerospace applications
how long
How long?
  • The scientifically correct answer is I don’t know
  • Trends in computer hardware suggest early in the next century — perhaps in the 2010 to 2020 time frame
  • Of course, how long it takes depends on what we do
developmental pathways
Developmental pathways
  • Scanning probe microscopy
  • Self assembly
  • Hybrid approaches

Moving molecules with an SPM

(Gimzewski et al.)

self assembled dna octahedron seeman
Self assembled DNA octahedron(Seeman)

dna on an spm tip lee et al
DNA on an SPM tip(Lee et al.)

bucky tube glued to spm tip dai et al
Bucky tube glued to SPM tip(Dai et al.)

building the tools to build the tools
Building the tools to build the tools
  • Direct manufacture of a diamondoid assembler using existing techniques appears difficult (stronger statements have been made).
  • We should be able to build intermediate systems able to build better systems able to build diamondoid assemblers.
diamond physical properties
Diamond Physical Properties

PropertyDiamond’s valueComments

Chemical reactivity Extremely low

Hardness (kg/mm2) 9000 CBN: 4500 SiC: 4000

Thermal conductivity (W/cm-K) 20 Ag: 4.3 Cu: 4.0

Tensile strength (pascals) 3.5 x 109 (natural) 1011 (theoretical)

Compressive strength (pascals) 1011 (natural) 5 x 1011 (theoretical)

Band gap (ev) 5.5 Si: 1.1 GaAs: 1.4

Resistivity (W-cm) 1016 (natural)

Density (gm/cm3) 3.51

Thermal Expansion Coeff (K-1) 0.8 x 10-6 SiO2: 0.5 x 10-6

Refractive index 2.41 @ 590 nm Glass: 1.4 - 1.8

Coeff. of Friction 0.05 (dry) Teflon: 0.05

Source: Crystallume

a hydrocarbon bearing
A hydrocarbon bearing

a planetary gear
A planetary gear

molecular tools
Molecular tools
  • Today, we make things at the molecular scale by stirring together molecular parts and cleverly arranging things so they spontaneously go somewhere useful.
  • In the future, we’ll have molecular “hands” that will let us put molecular parts exactly where we want them, vastly increasing the range of molecular structures that we can build.
synthesis of diamond today diamond cvd
Synthesis of diamond today:diamond CVD
  • Carbon: methane (ethane, acetylene...)
  • Hydrogen: H2
  • Add energy, producing CH3, H, etc.
  • Growth of a diamond film.

The right chemistry, but little control over the site of reactions or exactly what is synthesized.


A hydrogen abstraction tool

a synthetic strategy for the synthesis of diamondoid structures
A synthetic strategy for the synthesis of diamondoid structures
  • Positional control (6 degrees of freedom)
  • Highly reactive compounds (radicals, carbenes, etc)
  • Inert environment (vacuum, noble gas) to eliminate side reactions
the impact of molecular manufacturing depends on what s being manufactured
The impact of molecular manufacturingdepends on what’s being manufactured
  • Computers
  • Space Exploration
  • Medicine
  • Military
  • Energy, Transportation, etc.
how powerful
How powerful?
  • In the future we’ll pack more computing power into a sugar cube than the sum total of all the computer power that exists in the world today
  • We’ll be able to store more than 1021 bits in the same volume
  • Or more than a billion Pentiums operating in parallel
  • Launch vehicle structural mass will be reduced by about a factor of 50
  • Cost per pound for that structural mass will be under a dollar
  • Which will reduce the cost to low earth orbit by a factor of better than 1,000

it costs less to launch less
It costs less to launch less
  • Light weight computers and sensors will reduce total payload mass for the same functionality
  • Recycling of waste will reduce payload mass, particularly for long flights and permanent facilities (space stations, colonies)
Disease and illness are caused largely by damage at the molecular and cellular level

Today’s surgical tools are huge and imprecise in comparison nanotechAndMedicine.html

In the future, we will have fleets of surgical tools that are molecular both in size and precision.

We will also have computers that are much smaller than a single cell with which to guide these tools.

a revolution in medicine
A revolution in medicine
  • Today, loss of cell function results in cellular deterioration:

function must be preserved

  • With future cell repair systems, passive structures can be repaired. Cell function can be restored provided cell structure can be inferred:

structure must be preserved



37º C

37º C



-196º C (77 Kelvins)



(~ 50 to 150 years)

clinical trials to evaluate cryonics
Clinical trialsto evaluate cryonics
  • Select N subjects
  • Freeze them
  • Wait 100 years
  • See if the medical technology of 2100 can indeed revive them

But what do we tell those who don’t expect to live long enough to see the results?

today s choice would you rather join
Today’s choice:would you rather join

The control group

(no action required)?

Or the experimental group

(contact Alcor:

Military applications of molecular manufacturing have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to radically change the balance of power.

Admiral David E. Jeremiah, USN (Ret)

Former Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

November 9, 1995

nanotechnology and energy
Nanotechnology and energy
  • The sunshine reaching the earth has almost 40,000 times more power than total world usage.
  • Molecular manufacturing will produce efficient, rugged solar cells and batteries at low cost.
  • Power costs will drop dramatically
nanotechnology and the environment
Nanotechnology and the environment
  • Manufacturing plants pollute because they use crude and imprecise methods.
  • Molecular manufacturing is precise — it will produce only what it has been designed to produce.
  • An abundant source of carbon is the excess CO2 in the air
The best way

to predict the future

is to invent it.

Alan Kay