Lower Limit For Nanobot Size Discovered

Size limits for nanotechnology devices have finally been determined by University of Arizona physicists, who have succeeded in directly measuring how close an atom can come to a surface before its wave changes. This is the first time that the idea that a fast-moving atom's wave shortens and lengthens, depending on its distance from a surface. This idea was first proposed in the late 1920's.

This measurement is essential information for nanotechnologists, because it limits how small a device can be before van der Waals forces between atoms and surfaces starts to become a problem for a working device.

(From Atom interferometer)

UA optical sciences doctoral candidate John D. Perreault and UA assistant professor of physics Alexander D. Cronin used a sophisticated device called an atom interferometer in making the measurement. "Our research provides the first direct experimental evidence that a surface 25 nanometers away (25 billionths of a meter) causes a shift in the atom wave crests," Perreault said. "It shows that the van der Waals interaction may be a small scale force, but it's a big deal for atoms." Perreault and Cronin found that atoms closer than 25 nanometers to a surface are very strongly attracted to the surface because of the van der Waals interaction-- so strongly that the atoms are accelerated with the force of a million g's.

This new research causes an interesting dilemma not just for researchers in nanotechnology, but for science fiction writers as well, because it sets limits on imagination. When Einstein's work on relativistic physics became well established, sf writers were hard put to create believable space travel that involved accelerating a mass (like a spaceship) anywhere close to the speed of light, let alone at multiples of light speed. The arguments over whether hyperspace jumps and supralight drives are possible, or whether we will wind up using slowboats to journey to the stars, have gone on for several generations now.

When Philip K. Dick imagined the autofac in 1955 (and embryonic robots ten years later), there were no limits to how small you could imagine a nanobot to be:

The bits were in motion. Microscopic machinery, smaller than ants, smaller than pins, working energetically, purposefully - constructing something that looked like a tiny rectangle of steel.

"They're building," O'Neill said, awed.
(Read more about Philip K. Dick's autofac)

Dick's literary efforts preceded Richard Feynman's famous 1959 talk that kicked off the scientific pursuit of nanotechnology.

Read more here

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