What Happens When Nanotechnology Goes 3D?

Posted in Nanotechnology by Brian Buntz on January 17, 2013

A neon pump proposed by K. Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle in 1995. 

A universal joint proposed by  K. Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle in 1992.

It's not surprising that many medical device applications of nanotechnology have been limited to drug delivery and implants; most applications of nanotechnology at large have been 1D or 2D—despite countless predictions of complex implantable nanobots that would travel through our blood stream à la Fantastic Voyage. In the relatively near future, however, 3D structures could become commonplace and, as that happens, the medical (and nonmedical) applications of nanotechnology will greatly expand.

Theoretical examples of what such structures would a pump made of neon atoms and a universal joint (both shown here on the right), which were proposed by molecular nanotech pioneers Eric Drexler, PhD and Ralph Merkle, PhD. Molecular filters that use a rotor to draw in a solution while grabbing a target molecule is another basic application that could have a host of medical applications. In addition, this technology could potentially be used to filter carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere while simultaneously harvesting carbon as a raw material for commercial use. Such a breakthrough, however, is likely decades away. A molecular sorting motor could also be engineered to run in reverse, enabling it to be used as a microfluidic concentration gradient generator. Another potential application of molecular manufacturing is the creation of nano-robotic arms that wield molecular tools.

While the field of molecular manufacturing has tremendous potential, it is difficult to precisely estimate how far away it is from widespread use. The Institute for Molecular Manufacturing estimates that molecular manufacturing could mature within a decade.

In any event, commercializing the technology would require a concerted effort among researchers. Ralph Merkle has compared the situation to Kennedy's push to put a man on the moon, which required both a substantial investment in resources as well as focus and collaboration. "At this point, I would say that [having such a micromanufacturing initiative] is more important than any of the technological issues that are floating around," Merkle said last year while speaking at the Singularity University at Moffett Field, CA.

The chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, Neil Jacobstein, has predicted that the technology will "transform our relationship to molecules and matter as thoroughly as the computer changed our relationship to bits and information." In any case, it should be an interesting field to watch: along with fields like 3D printing technology and synthetic biology.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.