Molecular Assembler
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Computer Science Clay
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24-02-2009, 01:54 AM

A molecular assembler as defined by K. Eric Drexler is a "proposed device able to guide chemical reactions by positioning reactive molecules with atomic precision." Some biological molecules such as ribosomes fit this definition, since while working within a cell's environment, they receive instructions from messenger RNA and then assemble specific sequences of amino acids to construct protein molecules. However, the term "molecular assembler" usually refers to theoretical man-made or synthetic devices. Development of ribosome-like molecular assemblers was funded in 2007 by the British Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council It is clear that molecular assemblers in this limited sense are possible. A technology roadmap project and implimentation, led by the Battelle Memorial Institute and hosted by several U.S. National Laboratories has explored a range of atomically precise fabrication technologies, including both early-generation and longer-term prospects for programmable molecular assembly; the report was released in December, 2007. However, the term "molecular assembler" has also been used in science fiction and popular culture to refer to a wide range of fantastic atom-manipulating nanomachines, many of which may be physically impossible in reality. Much of the controversy regarding "molecular assemblers" results from the confusion in the use of the name for both technical concepts and popular fantasies. In 1992, Drexler introduced the related but better-understood term "molecular manufacturing," which he defined as the programmed "chemical synthesis of complex structures by mechanically positioning reactive molecules, not by manipulating individual atoms." Much of the body of this article discusses "molecular assemblers" in the popular sense. These include hypothetical machines that manipulate individual atoms, and machines with organism-like self-replicating abilities, mobility, ability to consume food, and so forth. These are quite different from devices that merely (as defined above) "guide chemical reactions by positioning reactive molecules with atomic precision". Because synthetic molecular assemblers have never been constructed, and because of the confusion regarding the meaning of the term, there has been much controversy as to whether "molecular assemblers" are possible or simply science fiction. Confusion and controversy also stem from their classification as nanotechnology, which is an active area of laboratory research which has already been applied to the production of real products; however, there had been, until recently, no research efforts into the actual construction of "molecular assemblers". A primary criticism of the computational research into products of advanced "molecular assemblers" is that the structures investigated are impossible to synthesize today.
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