Day 085 - Nanotechnology

Submitted by Sam on 13 August, 2011 - 23:50

The kind of protein engineering used by Angela Belcher to coerce biological machinery into building useful structures from inorganic materials highlights our growing ability to build things from the bottom-up, in a movement which breaks away from the ancient technological trend of bulk technology – which created everything from flint axes to silicon chips from processes involving the manipulation of many millions, billions and trillions of molecules at once – to technology working with ever finer precision down to the molecular level. As our molecular engineering capabilities have enhanced, we have made significant steps in manipulating matter on the atomic level, building structures atom by atom.

This is the emerging field of molecular nanotechnology, which promises complex machines on the molecular level. Unlike the mechanical and chemical technologies which power manufacturing today, reliant on crude processes like chopping and cutting, pounding and heating, advanced molecular manufacturing will work entirely from the bottom up, handling individual atoms and molecules with incredible control and precision, able to fabricate almost anything imaginable.

Today, most materials, even those modified by chemists and material scientists, are manipulated indirectly, perhaps by commandeering the existing nano-structuring properties of biological nanomachines like viruses and bacteria, and using imprecise process like mixing and heating. Nanotechnology promises a programmable molecular assembler which will be able to make almost any desired pattern of atoms, and therefore almost any structure or material, with utmost precision, revolutionizing the world more fundamentally than anything before; ultimately replacing all traditional manufacturing processes entirely, and upgrading and replacing all of today's crudely hewn products.

There is a huge precedent for the success of creating programmable nano-scale machinery provided by nature: all living things are composed in part from naturally evolved nano-machines. Enzymes, for instance, are molecular machines which build, break and rearrange the bonds in other molecules in a structured and highly specialized fashion. DNA serves as a nano-scale data-storage system, like a computer hard drive, encoding digital instructions at the molecular level which are then passed on to ribosomes, molecular machines which translate these instructions into the manufacture of protein molecules. Plants gather the energy they need using molecular-level solar collectors, made from nano-scale electronic reaction centres housed in their chloroplasts. In fact, in this light, trees are more sophisticated and more complex than the most finely engineered electronic devices that we can produce today. And they can make wood and leaves, gather solar energy, and replicate their molecular machines without generating toxic waste, noise or excess heat.

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