Moving the atom

Modern manufacturing methods such as casting, milling, grinding and even lithography handle materials at a macroscopic level – moving great herds of atoms from one place to another – yet there is no reason why the same principles cannot be applied at the

It is anticipated that sub-micron lithography will continue to fulfil our needs for the next 10 years or so. After 10 years, however, if the exponentially improving trends in computer hardware continue, lithography will reach its limits. It will not enable us to build semiconductor devices in which individual atoms can be placed at specific lattice sights. However, with nanotechnology – used to describe many types of research where the characteristic dimensions are less than about 1000 nanometres – it should be possible to develop an inexpensive manufacturing technology for components which are molecular in both size and precision.

Although the physical ability to build machines which work at a molecular level is still just out of reach, the design and modelling of these structures is becoming straightforward.

Formed in 1991, the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing is a non-profit making research organisation aimed at developing molecular nanotechnology. The organisation is currently carrying out modelling studies of molecular machinery and quantum modelling of nanoelectronics.

For example, the pictured differential gear imitates conventional engineering practice with its use of rotating shafts and gears, but it does so at a molecular level. This gear would serve the same purpose as its somewhat larger automotive relative, and yet it would only consist of thousands of atoms.

Other designs include a pump consisting of 6165 atoms and a fine-motion controller for molecular assembly. This latter design will be able to execute finely-controlled motions to transfer one or a few atoms in a guided chemical reaction.

This emerging technology will enable engineers to make – and specify at an atomic level – almost any structure consistent with laws of physics, a revolution which, when it gets going, will transform almost every area of industry.