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Published on Jan 21, 2016


Nanorobotics is an emerging field that deals with the controlled manipulation of objects with nanometer-scale dimensions. Typically, an atom has a diameter of a few Ångstroms (1 Å = 0.1 nm = 10-10 m), a molecule's size is a few nm, and clusters or nanoparticles formed by hundreds or thousands of atoms have sizes of tens of nm. Therefore, Nanorobotics is concerned with interactions with atomic- and molecular-sized objects-and is sometimes called Molecular Robotics.

Molecular Robotics falls within the purview of Nanotechnology, which is the study of phenomena and structures with characteristic dimensions in the nanometer range. The birth of Nanotechnology is usually associated with a talk by Nobel-prize winner Richard Feynman entitled "There is plenty of room at the bottom", whose text may be found in [Crandall & Lewis 1992]. Nanotechnology has the potential for major scientific and practical breakthroughs.

Future applications ranging from very fast computers to self-replicating robots are described in Drexler's seminal book [Drexler 1986]. In a less futuristic vein, the following potential applications were suggested by well-known experimental scientists at the Nano4 conference held in Palo Alto in November 1995:

" Cell probes with dimensions ~ 1/1000 of the cell's size

" Space applications, e.g. hardware to fly on satellites

" Computer memory

" Near field optics, with characteristic dimensions ~ 20 nm

" X-ray fabrication, systems that use X-ray photons

" Genome applications, reading and manipulating DNA

" Nanodevices capable of running on very small batteries

" Optical antennas


Nanotechnology is being pursued along two converging directions. From the top down, semiconductor fabrication techniques are producing smaller and smaller structures-see e.g. [Colton & Marrian 1995] for recent work. For example, the line width of the original Pentium chip is 350 nm. Current optical lithography techniques have obvious resolution limitations because of the wavelength of visible light, which is in the order of 500 nm. X-ray and electron-beam lithography will push sizes further down, but with a great increase in complexity and cost of fabrication. These top-down techniques do not seem promising for building nanomachines that require precise positioning of atoms or molecules.

Alternatively, one can proceed from the bottom up, by assembling atoms and molecules into functional components and systems. There are two main approaches for building useful devices from nanoscale components. The first is based on self-assembly, and is a natural evolution of traditional chemistry and bulk processing-see e.g. [Gómez-López et al. 1996]. The other is based on controlled positioning of nanoscale objects, direct application of forces, electric fields, and so on. The self-assembly approach is being pursued at many laboratories.

Despite all the current activity, self-assembly has severe limitations because the structures produced tend to be highly symmetric, and the most versatile self-assembled systems are organic and therefore generally lack robustness. The second approach involves Nanomanipulation, and is being studied by a small number of researchers, who are focusing on techniques based on Scanning Probe Microscopy.

Nanomanipulation with the SPM

Since the early days of the SPM it was known that tip/sample interaction could produce changes in both tip and sample. Often these were undesirable, for example, a blunt probe due to a crash into the sample. But it soon became clear that one could produce new and desirable features on a sample by using the tip in a suitable manner. One of the first demonstrations was done by Becker and co-workers at Bell Labs, who managed to create nanometer-scale germanium structures on a germanium surface by raising the voltage bias of an STM tip. 1987]. Much of the subsequent work falls under the category of Nanolithography and will not be discussed here. In the following subsections we survey Nanomanipulation research involving the SPM.

Pushing and Pulling

Pushing and pulling operations are not widely used in macrorobotics, although there has been interesting work on orienting parts by pushing, done by Matt Mason at CMU, Ken Goldberg at USC, and others. The techniques seem suitable for constructing 2-D structures.

Interatomic attractive forces were used by Eigler et al. at IBM Almadén to precisely position xenon atoms on nickel, iron atoms on copper, platinum atoms on platinum, and carbon monoxide molecules on. The atoms are moved much like one displaces a small metalic object on a table by moving a magnet under the table. The STM tip is placed sufficiently close to an atom for the attractive force to be larger than the resistance to lateral movement. The atom is then pulled along the trajectory of the tip. Eigler's experiments were done in ultra high vacuum (UHV) at very low temperature (4K). Low temperature seems essential for stable operation. Thermal noise destroys the generated patterns at higher temperatures.

Lateral repulsive forces were used by Güntherodt's group at the University of Basel to push fullerene (C60) islands of ~ 50nm size on flat terraces of a sodium chloride surface, in UHV, at room temperature, with a modified AFM [Lüthi et al. 1994]. The ability to move the islands depends strongly on species/substrate interaction, e.g., C60 does not move on gold, and motion on graphite destroys the islands. Lateral forces opposing the motion are analogous to friction in the macroworld, but cannot be modeled simply by Coulomb friction or similar approaches that are used in macrorobotics.

Mo at IBM Yorktown rotated pairs of antimonium atoms between two stable orientations 90 degrees apart. This was done in UHV at room temperature, on a silicon substrate, by scanning with an STM tip with a higher voltage than required for imaging. The rotation was reversible, although several scans were sometimes necessary to induce the desired motion.

Samuelson's group at the University of Lund succeeded in pushing galium arsenide (GaAs) nanoparticles of sizes in the order of 30 nm on a GaAs substrate at room temperature in air. The sample is first imaged in non-contact AFM mode. Then the tip is brought close to a nanoparticle, the feedback is turned off and the tip is moved against the nanoparticle. Schaefer et al. at Purdue University push gold clusters with an AFM in a nitrogen environment at room temperature. They first image the clusters in non-contact mode, then remove the tip oscillation voltage, and sweep the tip across the particle in contact with the surface and with the feedback disabled.

A similar technique is being used at USC's Laboratory for Molecular Robotics to push colloidal gold nanoparticles with 15 nm diameters on a mica substrate at room temperature and in ambient air. We image in non-contact mode, then disable the feedback and push by moving the tip in a single line scan, without removing the tip oscillation voltage. Figure 3 shows on the right a "USC" pattern written with gold nanoparticles. The z coordinate is encoded as brightness in this figure. On the left is the original random pattern, before manipulation with the AFM. Figure 4 shows the same "USC" pattern displayed in perspective. A 3-D VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) file is obtained from the terrain map.

Smaller objects have been arranged into prescribed patterns at room temperature by Gimzewski's group at IBM's Zürich laboratory. They push molecules at room temperature in UHV by using an STM. They have succeeded in pushing porphyrin molecules on copper [Jung et al. 1996], and more recently they have arranged bucky balls (i.e., C60) in a linear pattern, using an atomic step in the copper substrate as a guide.

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