October 07, 2003
MIT Group Creates Cheap Small HexFlex Nanomanipulator

Nanotech will get steadily cheaper and smaller.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Assembling a machine sounds straightforward, but what if the components of that machine are nanoscopic? Similarly, bringing together the ends of two cables is simple unless those cables have a core diameter many times smaller than a human hair, as is the case with fiber optics.

Although there are devices on the market with similar credentials, they are expensive and have inherent limitations. Using a fundamentally new design, an MIT team has invented the HexFlex Nanomanipulator that's not only inexpensive but performs better in many ways than its competitors.

The HexFlex, developed by MIT inventors led by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Martin Culpepper, has won a 2003 R&D 100 Award. The awards honor the 100 most technologically significant new products and processes, as determined by the editors of R&D magazine and more than 50 experts.

"A traditional nanomanipulator is the size of a bread box and costs more than a new SUV," Culpepper said. The MIT device is three to four inches tall by six inches in diameter "and could be manufactured for about $3,000."

The principal component of the HexFlex is a flat, six-pronged "star" of aluminum. Three of those prongs are mounted on an aluminum base. The other three are actually tabs that can be moved in six different directions thanks to a system of magnet-coil actuators. The device's name reflects that six-axis capability (hex) and compliant (flex) structure.

This device is noteworthy because it is small and cheap. What the future will bring is nanomanipulators that are more capable as well. This one sounds like more of a research tool. But picture one capable of building very complex and useful devices. There is considerable danger in that capability. Want to prevent a country or a terrorist group from getting, say, centrifuges that can purify uranium? If they can get a device that will build such centrifuges then it does no good to control the sale of uranium enrichment centrifuges made by known reputable makers.

The great thing about nanotechnology is that it is going to be small and cheap. The terrible thing about nanotechnology is that it is going to be small and cheap. If nanotechnology was going to require large economies of scale to make it possible to build a nanoassembler device it would be easier to try to prevent really dangerous products from making it into the hands of terrorists. But at least some nanotech manufacturing devices are going to be very small and cheap. Thirty years or forty years from now how to prevent a terrorist from getting ahold of a nanotech assembler that can build any kind of virus or bacteria that is desired? If there is an answer to that question it is not obvious.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 October 07 01:30 PM  Dangers Tech Terrorism

Greg Trocchia said at October 18, 2003 11:06 AM:

If one is in possession of advanced nanotechnology (ie. full up Molecular Nanotechnology, MNT) it would not be necessary to build a centrifuge. In his book: Nanomedicine, Volume 1, Robert Frietas Jr. concludes that it should be possible to discriminate between isotopes of individual atoms allowing for isotopic separation being done atom by atom (more information at http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/4.4.3.htm). Using a massively parallel separation scheme that MNT will also make possible, a critical mass sized quantity of isotopically pure fissionables could be sorted in just days.

Clearly, nuclear proliferation will become of even greater concern in an age of MNT. On the other hand, pervasive sensors via nanoscopic "smart dust" to detect either the radiation signature of a bomb (or the conventional explosive needed to assemble the critical mass) should be easy to produce and distribute as with the coming of MNT.

As far as terrorists being able to produce bacteria or viruses, Frietas has looked at a way to use MNT to counter either natural or man-made pathogens using a nanodevice he calls a microbiovore (more information at http://www.rfreitas.com/Nano/Microbivores.htm) which amounts to an artificial macrophage with ~80 times the efficiency and 3 orders of magnitude better response time than the natural version. The bad thing about nanotechnology is that as it matures, it presents us with new challenges especially with regard to misuse. The good thing about nanotechnology is that as it matures, it will also present us with new ways of addressing those challenges

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