Nanomachines are devices that range in size from the smallest of MEMS devices down to devices assembled from individual molecules. This section briefly introduces energy sources, structural hierarchy, and the projected future of the assembly of nanomachines. Built from molecular components performing individual mechanical functions, the candidates for energy sources to actuate nanomachines are limited to those that act on a molecular scale. Regarding manufacture, the assembly of nanomachines is by nature a one-molecule-at-a-time operation. Although microscopy techniques are currently used for the assembly of nanostructures, self-assembly is seen as a viable means of mass production. In a molecular device a discrete number of molecular components are combined into a supramolecular structure where each discrete molecular component performs a single function.
The combined action of these individual molecules causes the device to operate and perform its various functions. Molecular devices require an energy source to operate. This energy must ultimately be used to activate the component molecules in the device, and so the energy must be chemical in nature. The chemical energy can be obtained by adding hydrogen ions, oxidants, etc., by inducing chemical reactions by the impingement of light, or by the actions of electrical current. The latter two means of energy activation, photochemical and electrochemical energy sources, are preferred since they not only provide energy for the operation of the device, but they can also be used to locate and control the device.
Additionally, such energy transduction can be used to transmit data to report on the performance and status of the device. Another reason for the preference for photochemical- and electrochemical-based molecular devices is that, as these devices are required to operate in a cyclic manner, the chemical reactions that drive the system must be reversible. Since photochemical and electrochemical processes do not lead to the accumulation of products of reaction, they readily lend themselves to application in nanodevices. Molecular devices have recently been designed that are capable of motion and control by photochemical methods. One device is a molecular plug and socket system, and another is a piston-cylinder system. The construction of such supramolecular devices belongs to the realm of the chemist who is adept at manipulating molecules. As one proceeds upwards in size to the next level of nanomachines, one arrives at devices assembled from (or with) single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and/or multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWNTs) that are a few nanometers in diameter. We will restrict our discussion to carbon nanotubes (CNTs) even though there is an expanding database on nanotubes made from other materials, especially bismuth.
The strength and versatility of CNTs make them superior tools for the nanomachine design engineer. They have high electrical conductivity with current carrying capacity of a billion amperes per square centimeter. They are excellent field emitters at low operating voltages. Moreover, CNTs emit light coherently and this provides for an entire new area of holographic applications. The elastic modulus of CNTs is the highest of all materials known today. These electrical properties and extremely high mechanical strength make MWNTs the ultimate atomic force microscope probe tips. CNTs have the potential to be used as efficient molecular assembly devices for manufacturing nanomachines one atom at a time
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