Nanotechnology: the coming revolution in manufacturing

Ralph C. Merkle, Ph.D.

Research Scientist, Xerox PARC
3333 Coyote Hill Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304

Senior Research Associate, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing
555 Bryant Street, Suite 253, Palo Alto, CA 94301 USA

Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science,
Subcommittee on Basic Research, June 22nd, 1999.
Available on the web at

Whither Nanotechnology provides more extended comments and links on this subject.

An overview of nanotechnology is available on the web.

Links to reports on the hearing from:


For centuries manufacturing methods have gotten more precise, less expensive, and more flexible. In the next few decades, we will approach the limits of these trends. The limit of precision is the ability to get every atom where we want it. The limit of low cost is set by the cost of the raw materials and the energy involved in manufacture. The limit of flexibility is the ability to arrange atoms in all the patterns permitted by physical law.

Most scientists agree we will approach these limits but differ about how best to proceed, on what nanotechnology will look like, and on how long it will take to develop. Much of this disagreement is caused by the simple fact that, collectively, we have only recently agreed that the goal is feasible and we have not yet sorted out the issues that this creates. This process of creating a greater shared understanding both of the goals of nanotechnology and the routes for achieving those goals is the most important result of today's research.

The Goal

Nanotechnology (or molecular nanotechnology to refer more specifically to the goals discussed here) will let us continue the historical trends in manufacturing right up to the fundamental limits imposed by physical law. It will let us make remarkably powerful molecular computers. It will let us make materials over fifty times lighter than steel or aluminium alloy but with the same strength. We'll be able to make jets, rockets, cars or even chairs that, by today's standards, would be remarkably light, strong, and inexpensive. Molecular surgical tools, guided by molecular computers and injected into the blood stream could find and destroy cancer cells or invading bacteria, unclog arteries, or provide oxygen when the circulation is impaired.

Nanotechnology will replace our entire manufacturing base with a new, radically more precise, radically less expensive, and radically more flexible way of making products. The aim is not simply to replace today's computer chip making plants, but also to replace the assembly lines for cars, televisions, telephones, books, surgical tools, missiles, bookcases, airplanes, tractors, and all the rest. The objective is a pervasive change in manufacturing, a change that will leave virtually no product untouched. Economic progress and military readiness in the 21st Century will depend fundamentally on maintaining a competitive position in nanotechnology.

Self Replication and Low Cost

Many researchers think self replication will be the key to unlocking nanotechnologies full potential, moving it from a laboratory curiousity able to expensively make a few small molecular machines and a handful of valuable products to a robust manufacturing technology able to make myriads of products for the whole planet. We know self replication can inexpensively make complex products with great precision: cells are programmed by DNA to replicate and make complex systems -- including giant redwoods, wheat, whales, birds, pumpkins and more. We should likewise be able to develop artificial programmable self replicating molecular machine systems -- also known as assemblers -- able to make a wide range of products from graphite, diamond, and other non-biological materials. The first groups to develop assemblers will have a historic window for economic, military, and environmental impact.

What needs to be done

Developing nanotechnology will be a major project -- just as developing nuclear weapons or lunar rockets were major projects. We must first focus our efforts on developing two things: the tools with which to build the first molecular machines, and the blueprints of what we are to build. This will require the cooperative efforts of researchers across a wide range of disciplines: scanning probe microscopy, supramolecular chemistry, protein engineering, self assembly, robotics, materials science, computational chemistry, self replicating systems, physics, computer science, and more. This work must focus on fundamentally new approaches and methods: incremental or evolutionary improvements will not be sufficient. Government funding is both appropriate and essential for several reasons: the benefits will be pervasive across companies and the economy; few if any companies will have the resources to pursue this alone; and development will take many years to a few decades (beyond the planning horizon of most private organizations).

We know it's possible. We know it's valuable. We should do it.