Nanorobotic Manipulation

Authored by: Lixin Dong , Bradley J. Nelson

Handbook of Nanophysics

Print publication date:  September  2010
Online publication date:  September  2010

Print ISBN: 9781420075465
eBook ISBN: 9781420075496
Adobe ISBN:


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Nanorobotic manipulation entails the position and/or orientation control of nanometer-scale (dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nm) objects with nanometer resolution using a robotic manipulator. The legendary physicist Richard Feynman suggested a “weird possibility” for solving “the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale” in his prophetic speech that initiated the idea of nanotechnology (Feynman 1960): “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.” Such master–slave hands were enabled by the invention of scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs) by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer in the early 1980s (Binnig et al. 1982). Their invention has radically changed the way in which we interact with and even regard single atoms and molecules, and it earned them both a Nobel Prize in physics in 1986. The first nanomanipulation experiment was performed by Eigler and Schweizer (1990). They used an STM operating at low temperatures (4 K) and ultrahigh vacuum (UHV) to position individual xenon atoms on a single-crystal nickel surface with atomic precision. The manipulation enabled them to fabricate rudimentary structures of their own design, atom by atom. The result is the famous set of images showing how 35 atoms were moved to form the three-letter logo “IBM,” demonstrating that matter could indeed be maneuvered atom by atom as Feynman envisioned (Feynman 1960). A more generalized form of the STMs called the scanning probe microscopes (SPMs) now allows us to perform “engineering” operations on single molecules, atoms, and bonds, thereby providing a tool that operates at the ultimate limits of fabrication. The SPM enables the exploration of molecular properties on an individual nonstatistical basis, and is itself the primary tool that enabled the field of nanorobotics to emerge.

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