The five kinds of nanotechnology

by Eric Drexler on 2014/04/04

Why understanding seems stuck:

I count five kinds of nanotechnology, of which only three are called by that name. Of the three, one is a revolutionary prospect, one is a fantasy, and the third is mostly materials science. As for the other two kinds, one is the heart of today’s greatest technological revolution, while the other is the basis for progress toward the revolutionary prospect — but neither of these is called “nanotechnology”.

This may seem confusing, and it is. Indeed, people who think they know something about “nanotechnology” often have a lot to unlearn, and would be better off knowing basic physics and chemistry and starting from there. This situation makes it extraordinarily difficult to have a productive conversation about what really matters.

Here’s a compact summary in a nice, legible png image:

Please copy or link the above wherever it might surprise someone:
<img src="">

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew April 4, 2014 at 2:38 pm UTC

In which category would you put Freitas’ respirocytes?

JohnnyE April 5, 2014 at 2:36 am UTC

Andrew, respirocytes are a realistic potential product of APM. Not all nanobots are impossible.

What Eric means by “miraculous nanobots” are the machines seen in Hollywood movies, and such like, whose abilities are not grounded in physics. For example, they operate impossibly fast, they do fundamentally impossible things, and/or their power source is unphysical. They’re magic by another name. I don’t think fiction writers, for the most part, intend to muddy the waters to ill effect, they’re just trying to rebrand their story magic for the current zeitgeist–a couple generations ago it was radiation-induced genetic mutations and Johnny Quest-esque super-science–it will be something else someday.

The Day the Earth Stood Still remake–miraculous nanobots. The ‘nanoprobes’ in Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’–miraculous nanobots.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer–realistic nanobots, and other products of APM.

Eric Drexler April 5, 2014 at 11:45 am UTC

Andrew —
Respirocytes are proposed products of APM-level technologies.

Michael Bakunin April 7, 2014 at 4:15 am UTC

I would guess that there is less confusion in China over how the term “nanotechnology” relates to APM. Do you know if this the case? Have there been any reactions from Chinese researchers about the concept of APM?

The explosion of R&D funding in China at the moment is unparalleled in its scale in the history of science and technology. It seems to me to represent a tremendous opportunity to shape the course of APM development by laying down its theoretical foundations before China’s scientific establishment fully matures. Battelle’s projections are that China will surpass the US in R&D funding in nominal terms by 2022 and they will likely surpass the US in PPP terms long before that. The Royal Society even forecast that China could surpass the US in scientific publications output before 2015, of course there is a question of quality but it would be an impressive achievement nonetheless.

If there was even a small program relevant to APM undertaken by Chinese researchers and well publicized in the west it might spur a rethink of the current course of nanotechnology funding in the US.

John Ranadll April 12, 2014 at 11:38 pm UTC


Nanomaterials are a subset of nanotechnology. I have come to categorize things that go by the term Nanomaterials in popular press and publications.

Find some aspect of your material that is nanoscle (a molecule perhaps or some structure that is at least in the micro regime) and declare in your marketing or publication: Nanomaterial! This has been used quite effectively in marketing all sorts of products.

Keep manufacturing a material using traditional manufacturing methods, but use analytical techniques that allow you to examine the nanoscale structure and control your manufacturing process in a way that improves your material product. This is used effectively for instance in steel making where measuring and controlling the grain size in cold rolled steel does in fact improve the toughness of the steel. There are many other examples. These products usually don’t claim the Nanomaterial or Nanotechnology tag.

Add a nanoparticle or other nanostructure to a material that improves your material. There are numerous successful examples of this type of nanomaterial, the CNT enhanced material products (composites and epoxies) of Zyvex Technologies being the closest to my heart.

Materials that are engineered at the molecular or atomic scale to produce truly exceptional materials. I would not include in this category chemical feedstock where the molecules have been produced through traditional chemistry, but I would include synthesized on demand specific DNA sequences as NanoEngineered materials. The crown jewel of nanomaterials in my opinion is top down engineered materials where atoms and/or molecules are placed by design with atomic precision. In other words materials produced with Atomically Precise Manufacturing. This is emerging. Slowly, but it is emerging.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: