If there’s one thing Henry Ford taught us, it’s that assembling products part by part instead of finishing one object completely before going on to the next is actually quite efficient. With servos, drives, and controls to automate the movement, this type of production allows for complicated products from Roombas to Fitbits to be profitable to manufacture. While it was nothing short of a breakthrough when the assembly line first took over manufacturing, little changed about the concept since its inception — until now.
Engineers and biologists have formulated a way to take that same assembly method and shrink to the nano-level. The process takes place on a tiny computer chip rather than on a factory floor, the process is moved along without human operators, and the finished product is much, much smaller than your typical factory product.
Previously, nano creations were accomplished by mixing elements together to make a new material. This newer method is truly a sequential process that is done step by step. The cargo, or a nanoshuttle, is pushed down a channel that is one third as wide as a human hair, from one reaction to the next, sequentially adding molecules to create a finished product.
The team analyzed over 200 molecules to find the perfect cargo for this type of manufacturing. But keeping the process moving from start to finish was one of the major challenges. Keeping the molecules moving forward, rather than backwards, and ensuring that elements of the compartments were kept separate were all challenges. As the new technology moves forward, it may some day work to assemble or alter proteins, DNA, polymers, or nanotubes.
It will take quite a while for this type of process to grow to a scale to be used for mass production, however. Viola Vogel, a professor overseeing the project, likens it to the steam engine, which took decades to be commercialized into production processes after it was first invented. The applications here are too numerous to quantify at present, but what we’ve really seen so far is a proof of concept.
Will longstanding factory technology revolutionize the new world of nanotechnology? It’s certainly possible.