Published on Feb 20, 2020
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.
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