(Cue "Powerhouse," by Raymond Scott)
Nanofabbers are on my mind right now. They've shown up in some work I'm doing with IFTF; they're the focus of a project underway with CRN; and they're one of the manifestations of the "software control of matter" conversation underway at the EPSRC Ideas Factory.
An imaginary (*ahem*, "scenaric") version of a nanofabber shows up occasionally here at OtF: the StuffStation Deluxe ("...for when you want more stuff!"). Looking oddly like a fancy dishwasher, the StuffStation Deluxe offers its users a way to make things at the touch of a button. Enter in some code (no doubt grabbed from the AppleZon iStuff Store or downloaded from Forgeforge.org), press a button, and minutes later, ding! ("Honey, I think the laptop's done!")
But these aren't magical Star Trek replicators, they're machines that put things together, teeny tiny piece by teeny tiny piece. How does that work? Here are two videos that will make things clear.
The first is the latest version of the nanofactory designed by none other than Dr. Eric "Engines of Creation" Drexler, and turned into animated reality by John Burch. It's a five minute clip of a nanofactory making a foldable computer for an engineer (who apparently lives and works in the Uncanny Valley). There was an earlier version floating around the web last year, but this one has been updated, and can be downloaded in its high res, no artifacts, 77 megabyte glory from the animator's own site, Scintillating Science.
The video, along with the accompanying narration, explain how a device comprising literally trillions of synchronous molecular robots could, in fact, work, and hints at what could be done with such a device.
But if you think that's unbelievable, you have to see this:
It's a car factory. No, not just that. It's a robotic car factory. No, wait.
Using only LEGO parts, this
guy ("knusel111" from Germany) group of teenagers from the robotics group of the Veit-Hoser-Gymnasium in Bogen, Bavaria, built an entirely automated device to make LEGO car after LEGO car. You even get to choose the color of the components!
It's a YouTube video, so don't expect great quality; if I can find the original mpeg/mov/wmv, I'll post that link. But even with the grainy Flash video, you can see this is something amazing. Sure, it takes six minutes to build a rinky-dink toy... but it's done completely in LEGO! It's also an extremely primitive example of how a nanofactory could (in principle) work.
Next challenge, Veit-Hoser-Gymnasium: make one of these that make make a duplicate of itself.