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Research worldwide is advancing along multiple paths toward molecular manufacturing

Advanced molecular manufacturing systems will be constructed from parts and materials that cannot be made in the laboratory today. It would be futile to try to build them directly, yet many areas of research are helping to develop tools that will eventually make molecular manufacturing a reality.

On the process side, the key to molecular manufacturing will be using control of molecular positioning to build molecular structures. Scanning probe instruments (STM, AFM) have been used to move individual molecules, and to split and combine them. Catalysts in organic chemistry and enzymes in biochemistry guide molecular motions in a limited way, and both are today active targets for further development.

On the product side, the key to molecular manufacturing will be improving abilities to build atomically precise building blocks, then building nanomechanical systems by assembling them using scanning probes or Brownian motion. Numerous research groups around the world are working to extend this ability by designing and synthesizing new structures built from organic molecules, proteins, and nucleic acids. Reports of new, artificial molecular machines have in recent years become routine.

Most of these laboratory researchers are pursuing shorter-term goal than molecular manufacturing — goals such as catalysts for cleaner, more efficient chemical process, molecular frameworks that could support molecular electronic devices, or molecules useful in medical therapies. History, however, shows that research often has unintended consequences, and a natural consequence of improved abilities in chemical and nanoscale technologies will be the emergence of a technology base that can be used to implement the machines needed for ever more advanced molecular manufacturing systems.