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Manufactured products are made from atoms, and their properties depend on how those atoms are arranged. This volume summarizes 15 years of research in molecular manufacturing, the use of nanoscale mechanical systems to guide the placement of reactive molecules, building complex structures with atom-by-atom control. This degree of control is a natural goal for technology: Microtechnology strives to build smaller devices; materials science strives to make more useful solids; chemistry strives to synthesize more complex molecules; manufacturing strives to make better products. Each of these fields requires precise, molecular control of complex structures to reach its natural limit, a goal that has been termed molecular nanotechnology.

It has become clear that this degree of control can be achieved. The present volume assembles the conceptual and analytical tools needed to understand molecular machinery and manufacturing, presents an analysis of their core capabilities, and explores how present laboratory techniques can be extended, stage by stage, to implement molecular manufacturing systems. It says little about applications other than computation (describing 109-instruction-per-second submicron scale CPUs executing ~ 1016 instructions per second per watt) and manufacturing (describing desktop devices able to produce precisely structured, kilogram-scale products from simple chemical feedstocks). Surveys of broader implications appear elsewhere (Drexler, 1986a; 1989c; Drexler et al., 1991).

The intended readership

Molecular manufacturing is linked to many areas of science and technology. In writing this volume, I have been guided by an imaginary committee of readers with differing demands.

One is a reader with a general science background, interested in the basic principles, capabilities, and nature of molecular nanotechnology, but not in the mathematical derivations. Accordingly, I have attempted to summarize the chief results in descriptions, diagrams, and example calculations, and have included comparisons of this field to others that are more familiar. Such a reader can skip many sections without becoming lost.

Another is a student considering a career in the field. This reader demands an introduction to the foundations of molecular nanotechnology presented in terms of the basic physics, calculus, and chemistry taught to students in other fields. Accordingly, I have grounded most derivations in basic principles, developing intermediate results as needed.

The rest of the committee includes a physicist, a chemist, a molecular biologist, a materials scientist, a mechanical engineer, and a computer scientist. Each has deep professional knowledge of a particular field. Each demands answers to special questions that presuppose specialized knowledge. Each knows the exceptions that hide behind most generalizations, and the approximations that hide behind most textbook formulas. Accordingly, the discussion sometimes dives into a topic that readers outside the relevant discipline may find opaque. Skipping past these topics will seldom impair comprehension of what follows.

Each of these specialists also represents a community of researchers able to advance the development of molecular nanotechnology. Accordingly, many of the discussions implicitly or explicitly highlight open problems, inviting work in theoretical analysis, in computer-aided design and modeling, and in laboratory experimentation. I hope that this volume will be seen both as a guide and as an invitation to a promising new field.

The nature of the subject

Our ability to model molecular machines—of specific kinds, designed in part for ease of modeling—has far outrun our ability to make them. Design calculations and computational experiments enable the theoretical study of these devices, independent of the technologies needed to implement them. Work in this field is thus (for now) a branch of theoretical applied science (Appendix A).

Molecular manufacturing applies the principles of mechanical engineering to chemistry (or should one say the principles of chemistry to mechanical engineering?) and uses results drawn from materials science, computer science, and elsewhere. But interdisciplinary studies can foster misunderstandings. From every disciplinary perspective, a superficial glance suggests that something is wrong—applying chemical principles leads to odd-looking machines, applying mechanical principles leads to odd-looking chemistry, and so forth. The following chapters offer a deeper view of how these principles interact.


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