What is a Nanofactory?

The nanofactory is a proposed compact molecular manufacturing system, possibly small enough to sit on a desktop, that could build a diverse selection of large-scale atomically precise diamondoid products. The nanofactory is potentially a high quality, extremely low cost, and very flexible manufacturing system.

The principal input to a diamondoid nanofactory is simple hydrocarbon feedstock molecules such as natural gas, propane, or acetylene. Small supplemental amounts of a few other simple molecules containing trace atoms of chemical elements such as oxygen, nitrogen or silicon may also be required.

The nanofactory must be provided with electrical power and a means for cooling the working unit.

The principal output of the first commercial nanofactory will be macroscale quantities of atomically precise diamondoid products. These products may include nanocomputers, medical nanorobots, products having diverse aerospace and defense applications, devices for cheap energy production and environmental remediation, and a cornucopia of new and improved consumer products. Medical applications are of highest priority, including anti-aging therapies and resuscitation from cryonic preservation. Earlier-generation research nanofactories will produce substantially less complex products but will provide an evolutionary pathway leading from the first simple DMS workstations to more mature commercial systems.

The nanofactory is a molecular manufacturing system employing controlled molecular assembly that will make possible the creation of fundamentally novel products having the intricate complexity currently found only in biological systems, but operating with greater speed, power, reliability, and, most importantly, entirely under human control. Molecular manufacturing has the potential to be extremely clean, efficient, and inexpensive.

Our nanofactory will be constructed from diamondoid components of the same sort that it can itself manufacture. While molecular manufacturing systems made from DNA, other biopolymers, or even biological organisms are possible, such systems would be unable to build products that approach the remarkable strength, stiffness, temperature range, lightness, electrical, optical and other properties that can achieved with diamondoid materials.

The long-term goal of the Nanofactory Collaboration is to design, and ultimately to build, a working diamondoid nanofactory.

          “The killer app for digital fabrication is personal fabrication - things you can’t buy at Walmart. What if, instead of sending energy, computation, etc. around the world, we sent the means to create it? As regular objects become computerized and interconnected at a smaller and smaller scale, we’re approaching the nano-scale of biological systems. We’re on the cusp of a fabrication revolution.”
          Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, in his SC07 keynote address on 13 November 2007.

An excellent 1-hour general introduction to Molecular Nanotechnology, by Ralph Merkle, is here.





What is Diamondoid?

First and foremost, diamondoid materials include pure diamond. Diamond is the crystalline allotrope of carbon that is perhaps the strongest substance known to humankind. Note that it is our intention here to manufacture molecular products and machines made of diamond, not huge gemstones such as the one pictured at right. Large high-quality gemstones can already be produced by conventional bulk processes such as CVD for a cost on the order of $100/carat -- the techniques of atomically precise molecular manufacturing are not needed for this.

Diamondoid materials also may include any stiff covalent solid that is similar to diamond in strength, chemical inertness, or other important material properties, and possesses a dense three-dimensional network of bonds. Examples of such materials are carbon nanotubes (illustrated at right) or fullerenes, several strong covalent ceramics such as silicon carbide, silicon nitride, and boron nitride, and a few very stiff ionic ceramics such as sapphire (monocrystalline aluminum oxide) that can be covalently bonded to pure covalent structures such as diamond.

Pure crystals of diamond are brittle and easily fractured. The intricate molecular structure of a diamondoid nanofactory product will more closely resemble a complex composite material, not a brittle solid crystal. Such products, and the nanofactories that build them, should be extremely durable in normal use.

Most diamondoid materials used for nanomachinery would be constructed from the atoms of 12 elements in the Periodic Table: carbon (C), silicon (Si) or germanium (Ge) in Group IV, nitrogen (N) or phosphorus (P) in Group V, oxygen (O) or sulfur (S) in Group VI, fluorine (F) or chlorine (Cl) in Group VII, boron (B) or aluminum (Al) in Group III, and, of course, hydrogen (H). Carbon is the most versatile of these elements, so we've focused our initial efforts on carbon frameworks.

It is possible that nondiamondoid products composed of the same chemical elements (e.g., common organic or biological substances) but consisting of more conventional "floppy" (non-stiff) molecular structures might be produced by later-generation nanofactories having different architectures.










What Products Might a Nanofactory Provide?

The potential applications of diamondoid nanofactories are truly far-reaching. As just one important example, the products of nanofactories can make possible dramatic improvements in 21st century nanomedicine.

Perhaps by the 2020s, molecular manufacturing may enable the construction of complex diamondoid medical nanorobots such as the microbivore illustrated at right. These nanorobots could be used to maintain tissue oxygenation in the absence of respiration, repair and recondition the human vascular tree eliminating heart disease and stroke damage, perform complex nanosurgery on individual cells, enable extensive personal monitoring, and instantly staunch bleeding after traumatic injury. Other medical nanorobots such as the microbivore (illustrated at right) would rapidly eliminate microbial infections and cancer, while still others such as the chromallocyte would replace entire chromosomes in individual cells thus reversing the effects of genetic disease and other accumulated damage to our genes, preventing aging.

The basic capabilities and biocompatibility of diamondoid medical nanorobots have been preliminarily analyzed in the technical literature, but much more work remains to be done.

          “After 2015-2020, the field will expand to include molecular nanosystems – heterogeneous networks in which molecules and supramolecular structures serve as distinct devices. The proteins inside cells work together this way, but whereas biological systems are water-based and markedly temperature-sensitive, these molecular nanosystems will be able to operate in a far wider range of environments and should be much faster. Computers and robots could be reduced to extraordinarily small sizes. Medical applications might be as ambitious as new types of genetic therapies and antiaging treatments. New interfaces linking people directly to electronics could change telecommunications.”
          Mihail C. Roco, “Nanotechnology’s Future,” Scientific American, August 2006. (Roco is senior adviser for nanotechnology to the U.S. National Science Foundation and a key architect of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative.)

          “Some of the biggest benefits of nanotechnology such as artificial organs or nanorobotics systems [are] advanced capabilities and applications [that] will probably take 10-30 years to develop.”
          Mihail C. Roco, NanoWeek interview with Sander Olson, 24 October 2006.




Positional Diamondoid Molecular Manufacturing

Building complex mechanical diamondoid nanostructures in macroscale quantities at low cost requires the development of a new manufacturing technology called positional diamondoid molecular manufacturing. The preliminary case for the technical feasibility of positional diamondoid molecular manufacturing was first laid out by K. Eric Drexler in his book Nanosystems (1992).

Positional diamondoid molecular manufacturing is a proposed new nanoscale manufacturing technology that may enable the construction of working diamondoid nanofactories. Achieving this new technology will require the development of four closely related technical capabilities: (1) Diamond Mechanosynthesis, (2) Programmable Positional Assembly, (3) Massively Parallel Positional Assembly, and (4) Nanomechanical Design.




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(1) Diamond Mechanosynthesis (DMS)

Diamond mechanosynthesis, or molecular positional fabrication, is the formation of covalent chemical bonds using precisely applied mechanical forces to build diamondoid structures. DMS may be automated via computer control, enabling programmable molecular positional fabrication.

In this process, a mechanosynthetic tool is brought up to the surface of a workpiece. One or more transfer atoms are added to, or removed from, the workpiece by the tool. Then the tool is withdrawn and recharged. This process is repeated, slowly building up the desired structure, until the nanopart is completely fabricated to atomic precision with each atom in exactly the right place. Note that the transfer atoms are under full positional control at all times to prevent unwanted side reactions from occurring.

The working environment for DMS is often assumed to be an ultra-high vacuum (UHV), though DMS performed in a noble gas fluid or other chemically inert fluid environment is not inconceivable.

Using computer-automated tooltips performing positionally-controlled DMS in lengthy programmed sequences of reaction steps, we may be able to fabricate simple diamondoid nanomechanical parts such as bearings, gears, and joints (such as the all-hydrocarbon universal joint illustrated at right) to atomic precision. While it is likely that some basic diamondoid structures may be producible using self-assembly techniques from conventional synthetic chemistry, it seems unlikely that highly strained or complexly interleaved structures can be fabricated without employing some form of positional control.

Read more about Diamond Mechanosynthesis







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(2) Programmable Positional Assembly

Atomically precise nanoparts, once fabricated, must be transferred from the fabrication site and assembled into atomically precise complex components containing many nanoparts. Such components may include gear trains in housings (illustrated at right, courtesy of Mark Sims at Nanorex), sensors, motors, manipulator arms, power generators, and computers. These components may then be assembled, for example, into a complex molecular machine system that consists of many components. A complex micron-size medical nanorobot such as a microbivore constructed of such atomically precise components may possess many tens of thousands of individual components, millions of primitive parts, and many billions of atoms in its structure.

The conceptual dividing line between fabrication and assembly is sometimes blurred because in many cases it will be possible, even preferable, to fabricate nominally multipart components as a single part – allowing, for example, two meshed gears and their housing to be manufactured as a single sealed unit.

The process of positional assembly, as with DMS, can be automated via computer control. This allows the design of positional assembly stations which receive inputs of primitive parts and assemble them in programmed sequences of steps into finished complex components. These components can then be transported to secondary assembly lines which use them as inputs to manufacture still larger and more complex components, or completed systems, analogous to automobile assembly lines.

Read more about Programmable Positional Assembly




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(3) Massively Parallel Positional Assembly

It is not enough to be able to build just one atomically precise part, component, or medical nanorobot. For nanofactories to be economically viable, we must be able to assemble complex nanostructures in vast numbers – in billions or trillions of finished units.

This will require massively parallel manufacturing systems with millions of assembly lines operating simultaneously and in parallel, not just one or a few of them at a time as with the assembly lines in modern-day car factories. Fortunately, each nanoassembly production line in a nanofactory can in principle be very small. Many millions of them should easily fit into a very small volume. Massively parallel manufacture of DMS tools, handles, and related nanoscale fabrication and assembly equipment will also be required, involving the use of massively parallel manipulator arrays or some other type of replicative system.

Reliability is an important design issue. The assembly lines of massively parallel manufacturing systems might have numerous redundant smaller assembly lines feeding components into larger assembly lines, so that the failure of any one smaller line cannot cripple the larger one. Arranging parallel production lines for maximum efficiency and reliability to manufacture a wide variety of products is a major requirement in nanofactory design.

Read more about Massively Parallel Positional Assembly






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(4) Nanomechanical Design

Computational tools for molecular machine modeling, simulation and manufacturing process control must be created to enable the development of designs for diamondoid nanoscale parts, components, and nanorobotic systems. These designs can then be rigorously tested and refined in simulation before undertaking more expensive experimental efforts to build them.

Molecular machine design and simulation software is now available and libraries of predesigned nanoparts are slowly being assembled. More effort must be devoted to large-scale simulations of complex nanoscale machine components, design and simulation of assembly sequences and manufacturing process control, and general nanofactory design and simulation.

It will also be useful to create graphical images (suitable for television or other media coverage as well as for lectures to both technical and more general audiences) showing: (1) the various mechanosynthetic reactions, (2) the assembly sequences required to make some selected molecular machine components, and (3) conceptual systems-level illustrations and animations of a diamondoid nanofactory. These images and animations are also useful to help engineers progress from early conceptualization to more detailed design and analysis.

Read more about Nanomechanical Design

It is also essential to devote some effort to studies of possible applications of nanofactory-based molecular manufacturing, and also to studies of societal impact (economic, social, political, regulatory, etc.) of this technology. This will help to maximize the potential benefits to be gained and mitigate the potential risks that may be posed by this new technology, and encourage its responsible use.

Read more about Nanofactory Applications and Societal Impact











Join our International Collaboration!

The precursor to the Nanofactory Collaboration was informally initiated by Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle in the Fall of 2000 during their time at Zyvex. Their continuing efforts, and those of others, have now grown into direct collaborations among 25 researchers or other participants (including 18 Ph.D's or Ph.D candidates) at 13 institutions in 4 countries (U.S., U.K., Russia, and Belgium), as of 2010. Our group presently includes two Feynman Prize winners, two Foresight Communication Prize winners and two Foresight Distinguished Student Award winners.

What is the Nanofactory Collaboration? At present, we are a loose-knit community of scientists and others who are working together as time and resources permit in various team efforts with these teams producing numerous co-authored publications, though with disparate funding sources not necessarily tied to the Collaboration. While not all participants may currently envision a nanofactory as the end goal of their present research (or other) efforts in connection with the Collaboration, many do envision this, and even those who do not currently envision this end goal have nonetheless agreed to do research in collaboration with other participants that we believe will contribute important advances along the pathway to diamondoid nanofactory development, starting with the direct development of DMS.

While some work has been done on each of the four primary capabilities believed necessary to design and build a functioning nanofactory, for now the greatest research attention is being concentrated on the first area: proving the feasibility, both theoretical and experimental, of achieving diamond mechanosynthesis.

Each participant in the Collaboration is currently self-funded or internally funded. See our list of past and present Collaboration participants. See our complete list of publications related to the Collaboration.

Additional collaborations are eagerly sought to extend our ongoing theoretical and experimental investigations. The list of unfinished tasks is enormous. Read our list of outstanding technical challenges and our Nanofactory Roadmap to see where you might be able to offer help.












Emanuel Institute of Biochemical Physics (Russia)



Research Funding Urgently Needed

External research funding is urgently needed to extend our work and to accelerate progress toward the ultimate goal of building a functioning diamondoid nanofactory.

If you wish to support this work and are willing and able to commit significant financial resources, please contact Robert Freitas or Ralph Merkle to discuss the most efficient application of your resources to the Nanofactory Collaboration. We’re accustomed to operating on a shoestring budget and will deploy any contributed funds parsimoniously.

The economic value of the donated time and equipment invested by all Collaboration participants on focused efforts was about $0.2M/yr during 2001-07, rising to about $0.8M/yr in 2008-10 largely due to EPSRC 's direct support of Moriarty's experimental work during 2008-2013. The ideal direct funding level to maximize results in the next 5 years is $1M-$5M/yr, but incremental support in the $100K/yr range would produce measurable additional progress. The projection at right assumes ideal funding levels are made available to a focused effort such as the Nanofactory Collaboration, and that our “Direct-to-DMS” approach is pursued rather than a more circuitous development approach that seeks to implement less efficacious nondiamondoid molecular manufacturing technologies before progressing to diamondoid.





Our initial practical goal is the achievement of the first experimental demonstration of controlled diamond mechanosynthesis (one major Roadmap milestone and technical challenge). We anticipate that this achievement may trigger much greater technical interest in DMS and nanofactory development, causing significant and growing amounts of mainstream corporate and governmental funding to flow into this research field once it can be demonstrated that the larger vision of diamondoid molecular manufacturing is indeed technically feasible.

This expectation is supported by the results of a 2006 Congressionally-mandated review of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies and the National Materials Advisory Board (NMAB). The NMAB/NRC Review Committee considered the kinds of “bottom-up” technologies that could make DMS and more complex molecular manufacturing systems possible and concluded that “molecular self-assembly is feasible for the manufacture of simple materials and devices. However, for the manufacture of more sophisticated materials and devices, including complex objects produced in large quantities, it is unlikely that simple self-assembly processes will yield the desired results. The reason is that the probability of an error occurring at some point in the process will increase with the complexity of the system and the number of parts that must interoperate. However, it is difficult to reliably predict the attainable range of chemical reaction cycles, error rates, speed of operation, and thermodynamic efficiencies of...bottom-up manufacturing systems. Although theoretical thermodynamic efficiencies have been calculated for such systems, the committee did not learn of verifiable results of experimentation that would support reliable prediction of the feasibility of such systems for use in manufacturing.

The NMAB/NRC Review Committee then explicitly recommended that experimental work in this area should be pursued and supported as a key milestone in establishing feasibility of the concept: Experimentation leading to demonstrations supplying ground truth for abstract models is appropriate to better characterize the potential for use of bottom-up or molecular manufacturing systems that utilize processes more complex than self-assembly.

Following this recommendation, in 2007 the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) soliciting proposals on Tip-Based Nanofabrication to make nanowires, nanotubes, or quantum dots using functionalized scanning probe tips. A fabrication approach employing positionally controlled DMS could probably meet the challenges defined by DARPA in its solicitation.



Specific Project Proposals and Current Work

  • The first proposal of a practical process for building a mechanosynthetic tooltip, by Freitas, was filed as a provisional patent application in February 2004 and as a full utility patent by Zyvex in February 2005 – the first mechanosynthesis patent ever filed. Read an early version of the patent application here or here. The workability of Freitas’ proposed process has already received valuable and welcome critique from the scientific community, and Freitas believes that some version of the process may be sufficiently viable to serve as a vital stepping-stone to more sophisticated DMS approaches.
  • In September 2007, we completed a major three-year project to computationally analyze a comprehensive set of 65 reaction sequences and 9 mechanosynthetic tooltips that could be used to fabricate diamond, graphene (e.g., carbon nanotubes), and all of the tools themselves including all necessary tool recharging reactions. This is the first published paper to lay out a complete set of positionally-controlled diamondoid-building reactions, with all plausible unwanted side reactions analyzed using good quality ab initio (DFT) quantum chemistry calculations. On 7 September 2007 the Collaboration's first patent was filed on these tools and reactions which will form the core of our roadmap to develop diamond mechanosynthesis along a direct path that includes experimental validations. These experiments have received $3M funding, began on October 2008, and will run for the next 5 years. In this work, newly-acquired scanning probe equipment will be used in an attempt to build the first DMS tooltips using several of our proposed DMS reaction sequences.
  • Current Work: Our current list of collaborative participants and a brief description of their efforts are summarized here. Our publications and some works in progress are listed here. A preliminary Nanofactory Roadmap that concentrates on achieving diamond mechanosynthesis and positional assembly was first outlined in July 2005 and is guiding all our current research efforts. Our Roadmap is continually being refined and updated as new information is acquired, a technical book on diamond mechanosynthesis is being completed, and a formal DMS research proposal is in preparation.
  • First Diamond Mechanosynthesis Patent Issued in 2010: On 30 March 2010, U.S. Patent No. 7,687,146 was issued to Robert A. Freitas Jr. on a method for manufacturing the DCB6 carbon dimer placement tool. This is the first patent ever issued for diamond mechanosynthesis or positional mechanosynthesis.













Written contents of this page © 2006-14 Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle

Image credits: Nanofactory, Assembly Line, Positional Assembly -- © John Burch, Lizard Fire Studios. Rotary Nanofactory --designed/modeled by Forrest Bishop, 3D cinematography by E-spaces (Philippe Van Nedervelde), © Forrest Bishop, all rights reserved. Carbon Nanotube Gears -- Al Globus, NASA/Ames Research Center. Microbivore -- designer Robert Freitas, artist Forrest Bishop, copyright Zyvex. Molecule Tooltip -- © Forrest Bishop. Gears in Housing -- Nanorex. UniversalJoint -- designers K. Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle. Convergent Assembly, Convergent Factory -- K. Eric Drexler, Nanosystems (1992). Merkle Designing -- Ralph Merkle. Periodic Table, Dollar in Atoms -- Robert A. Freitas Jr. Copyright applies to all images. See also Belorussian translation.

Last modified on 19 December 2013

since 14 June 2006