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Feynman’s Path to Nanotech (part 1)


The Problem

In 1997, Philip Collins, then a graduate student at Berkeley, won the Foresight Institute’s Distinguished Student Award for his experimental verification that a defect location in a carbon nanotube could form a near-perfect rectifier, as well as various other heterojunction device behaviors, as had been theoretically predicted just the year before. “Such junctions could provide electronic elements with sizes inaccessible by lithographic manufacturing.”

In the decade since, a wide variety of electronic devices and phenomena have been found in carbon nanotubes, including highly conductive wires and FETs. Yet no nanocomputer or other complex circuit has been built, and the the semiconductor industry roadmap does not call for sub-5-nanometer gate lengths before 2022.

We have the devices. What we do not have is simply the infrastructure that macroscopic technology takes for granted: the ability to sort and test parts; to cut and join materials; to create frameworks that can hold devices in designed relationships, and the ability to place parts into such frameworks. (Drexler sometimes refers to this as the “circuit-board problem.”)

And yet we should have. In 1959 Richard Feynman, in his seminal talk Plenty of Room at the Bottom, described a straight-forward, immediately actionable plan which would have resulted in exactly such an infrastructure well before 2000 if it had been followed.

Feynman’s Proposal

Let us begin by quoting the relevant section of Feynman’s 1959 talk:

Now comes the interesting question: How do we make such a tiny mechanism? I leave that to you. However, let me suggest one weird possibility. You know, in the atomic energy plants they have materials and machines that they can’t handle directly because they have become radioactive. To unscrew nuts and put on bolts and so on, they have a set of master and slave hands, so that by operating a set of levers here, you control the “hands” there, and can turn them this way and that so you can handle things quite nicely.

… Now, I want to build much the same device—a master-slave system which operates electrically. But I want the slaves to be made especially carefully by modern large-scale machinists so that they are one-fourth the scale of the “hands” that you ordinarily maneuver. So you have a scheme by which you can do things at one- quarter scale anyway—the little servo motors with little hands play with little nuts and bolts; they drill little holes; they are four times smaller. Aha! So I manufacture a quarter-size lathe; I manufacture quarter-size tools; and I make, at the one-quarter scale, still another set of hands again relatively one-quarter size! This is one-sixteenth size, from my point of view. And after I finish doing this I wire directly from my large-scale system, through transformers perhaps, to the one-sixteenth-size servo motors. Thus I can now manipulate the one-sixteenth size hands.

Well, you get the principle from there on. It is rather a difficult program, but it is a possibility.

In a nutshell, the idea is to start from the macroscale machining and fabrication and move to the nanoscale without ever losing the general fabrication and manipulation ability.

Feynman famously offered prizes for the first steps in such a process, and the Foresight Institute continues to award prizes in his name for advances toward the capabilities he foresaw. However, there has not been a focused, coordinated effort to follow the pathway, or even a serious study of its feasibility.

The Missing Chapter of the Roadmap

As a member of the Foresight/Battelle Roadmap working group, I was the champion of Feynman’s scheme as one of the possible pathways. It was decided, however, that the Roadmap should focus only on those techniques which produced atomically-precise products. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, like insisting that the only territory on a map be that of the destination and exclude the starting point and intervening territory. However, there were sound political reasons for it, primarily as a hard stop to exclude the thin films and particulates “nanopants” nonsense from taking over the proceedings.

However, I feel that the time has come to examine the possibility of actually doing what Feynman proposed, and that is what I will do in the follow-on series of posts. You can, if you like, consider this the missing Roadmap chapter.

9 Responses to “Feynman’s Path to Nanotech (part 1)”

  1. Michael Kuntzman Says:

    I wouldn’t call myself an expert in the field, but it seems to me that we have the technology today to go all the way to atomic precision in just a few iterations. What we are lacking are the intermediate designs, and the funding and effort to develop and build them.

    Consider MEMS technology. It’s been around for quite a while now. We have a lot of experience with it, and we’ve built some pretty amazing stuff with it. We even know how to combine MEMS with CMOS on the same chip. I wonder, how hard would it be to build a delta robot or steward platform a few hundred microns across (I suppose the delta robot would be harder)?

    Today’s macroscale robots have micron-scale precision – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Du2f-EUDqio
    I quote the technical specs from the comments:
    Max speed: 2m/s
    Repeatability: 1um
    Max load (keeping precision): 3kg
    That robot looks maybe half a meter across? That’s about 1:500000 ratio. If a 500um delta robot had the same precision ratio, its precision would be 1nm! But even with a 1:1000 ratio, you’d still be only a few iterations away. How many of today’s transistors could one fit in a 500um x 500um square? Enough to build a simple ASIC controller, I would think.

    If you ask me, that’s what we should be trying to build.

  2. John Faith Says:

    Another benefit I see of having a first-generation, micron-scale machine or Stewart platform is that it would enable an environment in which we could start thinking about systems level issues like integrating design software with the manufacturing devices, standards for connecting feedstocks or for tool changers, ways of coordinating work between machines. Many ideas could be carried down to the next scale.

    If a dedicated micron-scale assembler will not be built in the short-term , I wonder if an existing MEMs device could be coaxed into doing something more productive. For example: could a readily-available Digital Mirror Device be used to move objects on its surface in interesting patterns with the right kind of video input?

    High precision miniature piezo motors are becoming much cheaper and there could be a non-linear growth in homebrew micro assemblers.

  3. Michael Kuntzman Says:

    About a month ago I read a presentation about a MEMS 6-DOF manipulator. Its range of motion is very limited, and it’s work area is small compared to the total area of the device, but it’s a step in the right direction. They estimate it would take at least 10 years to commercialize this.

    The work is from April 2008, and is available here:
    http://tvalley.nl/fckfiles/file/UTwente_-_Dannis_gehele_presentatie.pdf
    Very interesting.

  4. Rob Says:

    Don’t forget that Robert Heinlein actually described this idea, of using small manipulators to create even smaller ones, in his 1942 short story Waldo.

  5. Tyrone Slothrop Says:

    As an engineering undergraduate at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in 1982, I heard a talk by Professor Feynman. His talk was funny and challenging. He passed around a miniature motor encased in lucite, which required a powerful magnifying glass to see it spinning. If I remember correctly, it was about 0.5 mm in size. How primitive!

  6. M. Report Says:

    The Master/Slave hands are called “Waldos”,
    after the title character in a 1942 Heinlein
    novella; The iterative miniaturization concept
    is also in that story.
    Today it is called Telepresence, and has been fully
    implemented on the human scale, including the last critical ability, tactile feedback.

    Control circuitry would be simpler, and easier
    to fab, if it were analog thermionic; Based on
    vacuum tube op-amp designs.

  7. LS Says:

    I really hesitate to go up against the likes of Richard P., (he was a hero to us when I was a physics grad student 40 years ago), but it’s not likely that his idea will be useful at really small scales. Too many factors come into play that you don’t think about when you imagine scaling down things that are useful at macroscale.

    Think about “The Incredible Voyage”. It’s easy to imagine a miniature submarine cruising through the bloodstream, but if you could really build such a thing, it would be subject to such a molecular bombardment (think Brownian motion) that such a machine would be useless.

    Macro thinking just won’t cut it at the micro scale, certainly not at the nano scale.

  8. John L. Scott Says:

    Robert Heinlein described this very idea in his short story “Waldo”. This was in 1942 so we really ought to call this “Heinlein’s Path to Nanotechnology”.

  9. Tyrone Slothrop Says:

    As an undergraduate in engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1982, I was privileged to hear Professor Feynman speak. His talk was both funny and provocative. To illustrate one of his topics, he passed around a micro motor encased in lucite. If I recall corectly, the motor was about 0.5mm and required a strong magnifying glass to see it spinning. Half a millimeter? How primitive!

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