The challenges of Nano Manufacturing

Nano Manufacturing is “the commercially scalable and economically sustainable mass production of nanoscale materials and devices.”

By constructing an item atom by atom or molecule by molecule, molecular manufacturing, also called molecular nanotechnology, can create new materials with improved performance over existing materials. For example, a plane strut must be very powerful, but also lightweight. A molecular fabricator could build the strut atom by atom out of carbon, making a lightweight material that’s stronger than a diamond. Nano manufacturing leads to the creation of products that are new and improved materials. Such nano materials may be stronger, lighter, more lasting, water-repellent, anti-reflective, self-cleaning, UV or infrared-immune, antifog, antimicrobial, electrically conductive, or scratch-resistant.

There are just two basic strategies to nanomanufacturing, either top down or bottom-up.

Top-down manufacturing reduces larger materials to the nanoscale, like whittling a block of wood. This approach requires larger amounts of materials and inevitably leads to wastage. Bottom-up manufacturing involves building material up from the molecular level to create larger objects for example using molecules laid down uniformly to product a film or coating.

Nano manufacturing could be seen as molecular assembly similar to traditional assembly lines but scaled to nano-scale. The notion of ‘self assembly’ becomes relevant in this circumstance with respect to ‘self-repeating’ nanomachines, i.e. machines that self-assemble themselves. The other way to do bottom up nanotechnology is molecular assembly. The bottom-up strategy to production creates products by building them up from atomic and molecular-scale components, which may be time-consuming. Scientists are researching the concept of creating certain molecular-scale parts together that will spontaneously “self-gather” from the bottom up into ordered structures.

The challenge in nanoparticle synthesis is that it requires a lot of skill and expertise on the part of the chemist to control the size and shape of molecules in the way they are formed to produce quality particles so there is a long way from nanoparticle production to nanomanufacturing of complex structures or nano-devices.

One industry where nanoscale production technologies are employed on a large scale is the semiconductor industry where apparatus structures have become as little as 20-30 nanometers. Nanoscale electronics will lead to computers that are faster, more powerful, and more energy efficient and to the potential to exponentially increase information storage capacity. This because a limiting factor in speed of microprocessors is the time to transmit instructions which can be significantly increased by reducing the distance of transmission. Thus much of the improved processing speed improvement in successive generations of chips come from size reducing.

Nanoscientists are still dealing with the very fundamental problems such as having the capability to command the synthesis of nanoparticles. With our practical abilities today, the most advanced bottom up nanotechnologies are a combination of chemical synthesis and self-assembly. But they already allow us to perform atomically precise manufacturing on a small scale and this will definitely bring about significantly improved compounds, a lot more efficient production processes and totally new medical procedures.