Consisting of 15,342 atoms, this parallel-shaft speed reducer gear is one of the largest nanomechanical devices ever modeled. (Image courtesy of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.)
Believe it or not, the concept of nanotechnology has been around for almost 60 years.
The late, great Richard Feynman first proposed the idea in his playfully titled talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” and since then, manufacturers have been waiting for the nanotech revolution with baited breath.
At present, we’re on the cusp of that revolution, with some products already utilizing nanotechnology, though not yet to the extent that Feynman envisioned. However, a recent paper published in the journal ACS Nano explores the possibilities of true nanomanufacturing and contrasts it with nanofabrication.
So what’s the difference?
As defined by the authors, nanomanufacturing is “the commercially scalable and economically sustainable mass production of nanoscale materials and devices.” The authors distinguish this concept from nanofabrication in terms of economic viability.
In other words, nanomanufacturing is profitable, while nanofabrication is not. Hence their suggestion that the latter term be restricted to research.
Even with this handy distinction, nanomanufacturing still encompasses a wide variety of processes. These include:
- Adding nanoscale features to larger objects (e.g., integrated circuit fabrication)
- Creating nanoscale objects with special properties (e.g., quantum dot synthesis)
- Assembling nanoscale objects into larger structures (e.g., DNA nanotube assembly)
- Using nanotechnology to manufacture nanoscale structures (e.g., bubble pen lithography)
The authors use integrated circuit manufacturing as a baseline for considering the factors involved in matching nanomanufacturing processes with products. To that end, they contrast “top-down” deterministic processes, such as photolithography, with “bottom-up” stochastic processes, such as DNA-based self-assembly.
The authors conclude that, “The technology to fabricate integrated circuits will continue to evolve in capability and cost, but will remain uneconomic for low value-per-unit-area, high-volume products.”
In other words, don’t expect the next generation’s cars to be assembled one atom a time. Their smartphones, on the other hand… Well, as Feynman said, there’s plenty of room at the bottom.
What do you see as the most promising manufacturing application for nanotechnology? Comment below.