Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Nanobots
Name: Colleen
Status: Student
Age: 16
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: February 2004


Question:
How are nanobots made? What are their primary functions?



Replies:
Hi

I do not believe any nanobots exist yet, Colleen. So far they are just a science-fiction idea, that is just beginning to be visible on the horizon of our technological development curve.

Nanobots will need to be built an atom or molecule at a time, or by beams "painting" with metals and hard oxides, or by custom enzymes acting as construction hands for us, or by much smaller lithography (printing) than we do now. So far we can put hundreds of atoms of a convenient kind one at a time, on intended spots on numerous materials, but we need to do it with many different kinds of atoms, and do it with millions to billions of atoms. Or develop much more ability to design and build large bio-molecules that do the right construction-things spontaneously.

Keep in mind that a Bacterium is a naturally occurring untamed nanomachine. Bacteria modified by genetic engineering will happen first, and do simple fixed jobs for us, and so might be considered our first nanobots. In the mid-range it seems likely to me that there could be some largish computer-object that can quickly re-design and build new nanobots for each different job we want. Even slightly different. Flexible nanobots you can "talk to" and re-program to do different jobs are much farther in the future, and it is anybody's guess whether arbitrarily programmable behavior will be built in bio-organisms or inorganic nano-machines first.

Primary functions, we are all guessing. Just use your common sense and science education about what little solid objects can actually do without super-powers. Somewhere between what insects and germs can do. They will not travel at supersonic speeds. They will not dissolve steel bridges in an instant. In a year, maybe. But then, acid does that. And dynamite does it in a second. Building a spider-web bridge in a year might be a better idea to use nanobots for, like a swarm of tamed worker-ants. An individual nanobot might even have problems making radio waves strong enough for another nanobot across the room to hear it. They would have to work in teams, or swarms, to make one wave, consuming some chemical fuel dispersed throughout their environment to make the power in the radio waves.

Unless they are modified natural bacteria, they will not be anywhere near capable of reproducing themselves. So far, nature is better at all robotics than we are. When/if we do make ones that reproduce, we must consider ourselves as creating living organisms, and be extremely careful and wise. Possibly it will never be smart to do that.

I suspect the first inorganic nanobots will be entirely dependent on a special artificial environment to work. Suppose you had a glass dish, the bottom of which was a not-very-dense swarm of nanobots, sorting cells or painting 1 million x 1 million checkerboards. For them to keep working, a nutrient bath would need to keep flowing through the dish, or maybe an electrical grid could be printed all over the floor of the dish, and they could only "slide along the wires". Any nanobot that accidentally let go of the wire, would be dead dust. I am not trying to be reassuring that they would be harmless, I am trying to emphasize that they would be very limited in use and durability, at first and for a long time.

It is easier to predict what they will use, than what they will be used for. Light waves will be easier to direct than radio waves, because their wavelength is smaller. Chemical senses will be easier to use than throwing waves of any kind, and maybe chemical "broadcasts" too. If there is a spider-web or clear film that conducts light of electricity, it will be a valuable telegraph system for them. Sensing and reporting will be an easier job for them than building or acting. Nanobots are all surface and almost no volume, so they will be extremely weak in stored power, and tend to be "tactile" about what they do. Static electricity might be a good muscle-force for some legs and arms, but it is easily interfered with, so other kinds of muscles will be much sought. They may skitter and wiggle fast on their scale, but their velocities compared to our size will still be slow.

I have an vague idea that nanobots are an almost self-serving idea. It takes nanobots to build other nanobots, and what nanobots will do best for us is building other small-featured things with regular rules. 3-D sensors and displays where a swarm faintly fills a volume or area, is another likely class of applications. Crawling into a jungle for us is a 3rd category, as most body-implanted medical uses would be. They probably could not accomplish instant-healing for you, as in sci-fi TV shows, but they might gradually hunt certain large-particle infections, or do dispersed surgery in a specific part of the body, or substitute for some simple body function temporarily. Keeping them solely in the right part of the body, because elsewhere they would do some harm, might be problematic.

There will be some word-confusion over just what size-and-function category one means by "nanobot". There will be organic ones (re-designed bacteria), and inorganic ones, and hybrids. There will be truly small ones 100 atoms across that only do one simple reflex action, up to bigger ones the size of insects, up to space-ships that think and try to self-repair. No distinct definitions will hold for long, except perhaps those we as a society adopt.

Is that food for thought?

Jim Swenson



Click here to return to the Engineering Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (help@newton.dep.anl.gov), or at Argonne's Educational Programs

NEWTON AND ASK A SCIENTIST
Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory