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Molecular Manufacturing: What, Why and How

Chris Phoenix, Director of Research, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

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Molecular manufacturing emphasizes the use of precise, engineered, computer-controlled, nanoscale tools to construct vast numbers of improved tools as well as products with vast numbers of precise, engineered nanoscale features. It has not been clear how to design and build the first nanoscale tools to start the process of scaleup and improvement, or how easily the operation of many advanced tools could be coordinated. This paper develops a roadmap from today's capabilities to advanced molecular manufacturing systems. A number of design principles and useful techniques for molecular construction via nanoscale machines are discussed. Two approaches are presented to build the first tools with current technology. Incremental improvement from the first tools toward advanced integrated "nanofactories" is explored. A scalable architecture for an advanced nanofactory is analyzed. The performance of advanced products, and some likely applications, are discussed. Finally, considerations and recommendations for a targeted development program are presented.


The paper is organized into eight sections.

  1. “Basic theory and observations” covers topics that apply to a broad range of molecular manufacturing systems.
  2. “Primitive molecular manufacturing systems” proposes two designs for systems that appear capable of development with today's technologies.
  3. “Incremental improvement” discusses how to develop the primitive systems toward the goal of self-contained kilogram-scale manufacturing systems.
  4. “High performance nano and micro systems” describes several designs and techniques that can be useful in advanced nanofactories and products.
  5. “Advanced nanofactory architecture and operation” provides an overview of the possible architecture and function of an advanced nanofactory.
  6. “Advanced product design and performance” describes the performance available to products built out of strong nano-structured materials, and includes a brief discussion of design approaches.
  7. “Incentives and applications” explores some reasons why nanofactory products will be inexpensive to produce and quick to develop, and illustrates several ways that plentiful, inexpensive, advanced products might be used, demonstrating the high value of molecular manufacturing.
  8. "Targeted development of molecular manufacturing" explores some of the issues an organization will have to consider in deciding whether to launch a program targeted at developing molecular manufacturing, and some of the desiderata for such a program.


As access to the nanoscale improves, increasingly complex materials and devices are being constructed. Recent talk of “nanomanufacturing” emphasizes this trend. Nanomanufacturing refers to advances in conventional materials processing, using large processing equipment and nanoscale phenomena to make small, usually simple products, such as nanoparticles. However, achieving the high expectations that people have of nanotechnology will demand more than incremental development of familiar tools and approaches. Molecular manufacturing is a fundamentally different approach, using nanoscale machines to construct engineered, heterogeneous, atomically precise structures by direct manipulation. Its ultimate goal is to build complex products, both small and large, with atomic precision. It differs from nanomanufacturing in its emphasis on the design, construction, and use of precise and highly intricate nanomachines to handle individual molecules for construction; this enables a reduced reliance on self-assembly to form intricate and large-scale structures.

[The eight main sections of this paper are in separate pages, linked from the "Summary" section above.]


Currently available theory and analysis indicate that molecular manufacturing will lead to the development of extremely high performance nanoscale machines, far exceeding anything available today in engineering or in biology according to simple measures of performance. These machines can be integrated into manufacturing systems of any desired scale, capable of processing their own mass in hours or minutes. Products built with these manufacturing systems would be extremely valuable.

The concepts presented in this paper suggest that practical development efforts could be launched using today's tools and theories. The cost of such efforts, and their effect on the speed of advancement of molecular manufacturing and its many spinoff technologies, is currently unknown. Because the timeline for development will be affected by the timing, resources, and number of targeted development programs, the time cannot be predicted either, although it is likely to be somewhat in advance of the schedule for independent development of capabilities equivalent to molecular manufacturing.

The author wishes to thank Eric Drexler, Tihamer Toth-Fejel, Jeffrey Soreff, and Robert Freitas for helpful comments, and Tihamer Toth-Fejel for the rendered illustrations.

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