I've been thinking about a cyberpunk universe where nanobots are a universal force capable of achieving many things, examples include:

  • Biological and medical modifications of the human body
  • Construct/reconstruction of machinery or infrastructure and general maintenance
  • Combat, war, etc where nanobots are used to shutdown weapons and vehicles or simply consume attackers

These examples are fairly extreme and probably wouldn't be frequent in the universe but I'm interested in the physics of nanobot consumption. Say a particular species of nanobot is developed. How would it 'consume' objects and what would it do with the matter after if consumed it?

I'm interested specifically in the functionality of the nanobot and any side affects that functionality might have. An example of a silly non-realistic answer might be: It uses a little pacman mouth to devour atoms....

  • $\begingroup$ Not sure how much he covers it in Swarm but Michael Chriton wrote a book about 'em. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ If I recall, this was never discussed in Swarm. It merely mentioned that they had reflecting panels, and used a mold/thing to convert living matter to energy somehow. But I haven't read it in years. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 19:50
  • $\begingroup$ For some ideas investigate Anarchy Online (Wikipedia). Not necessarily for ideas of the specifics of functionality, just for flavor. The game has lots of nanotech for everything you've described in your question. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Bloom by Wil McCarthy is a much better nanobot book than Swarm (I've read both). McCarthy is a hard science fiction writer and describes atomic disassembly in his Collapsium novels (though they were for 'fax machines' that disassembled people and sent them to be printed out elsewhere). $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 0:58

2 Answers 2


You should not think of a nanobot like a 'eating'-animal or something. This would be a big problem, due they only could handle molecules and cells wich are smaller than they are, plus they need additional size for some extracting or cutting mechanics to get the molecules/cells off whatever they're attached to.

Better think of nanobots like enzymes. They could attach molecules and bring them to react in some chemical way. For example, they could change the connections of atoms in molecules to extract specific atoms and transform the molecules in that way.

Think in chain-reaction. If I cut off a hydrogen of H2O what would happen? Depends on the environment, but one possibility is that the left over HO will react with another leftover HO to H2O2 Hydrogen peroxide which is very corrosive and will damage the environment. (An example of Nanobot-weapon). This is a very simple molecule. What would happen with DNA for example? You could change the creature's DNA that way! Just change a big amount of the stem cells.

You may also think of it in some kind of virus. If it's able to alter metabolism (just as an enzyme) and also to nest in a cell, it could alter the behavior of the cell like a parasite. What would be happen if a nanobot could change the way a specific nerve cell works? It could alter the behavior of his host creature for example. You also could change the production of some hormones.

But to harm the host is not the only possible usage. Nanobots could be used as a guardian to protect the host against other nanobots, viruses, bacteria and so on. They could close the bloodstream very fast after a injury, be used as storage for adrenaline, ATP and so on to make a fighter fight better for longer time without getting tired.

If small enough and working like enzymes which can nest cells, nanobots simply could imitate and alter every part of the metabolism. In either, good and bad way.

EDIT - additional thoughts from comments:

How to keep em small:

One kind of bot for one kind of job! Like in programming, the more a function does, the larger it gets. So if a nanobot has to cut and assamble different kind of molecules, it needs several tools. You could make one specific bot for cuttung, one for assambling and so on. This makes them smaller.

Communication to outside:

There a two ways of possible communication: Hard-wired, and radio. "Hard-wired", not to take literally, could be mady by a docking-station in the skin or something. When the bots visit the dockingstation, they get the last received order which is saved in the dockingstation.

"radio" gives the big disadvantage, that a receiving bot must be pretty large (antenna). But if you take the same concept as in hard-wired, it's not a real problem at all. Make a few specific nanobots that have an antenna and put them into venes or hollow organes. They do not have to move, so they could be >1cm long and be able to receive radio signals. Other bots go to the "receiver" bot to get their orders.

Both concept raise the problem of slow reaction, due they only know the last order they have taken and do not know if a new one arised.

This problem could be solved with this concept:

Inner communication:

Do you know how white corpuscles know where to go? Due hormones and stuff. Your nanobots could communicate with each other if they release some specific molecules. Other bots, which notice it, have a protocoll how to react to specific concentration of this pseudohormones. That way, a nanobot could tell his little friends that a new order is in, or that he needs help with a specific task.

  • $\begingroup$ I definitely viewed nanobots as being more conventional robots. How would you build computers into the nanobots so that they can receive instructions if they are like this though? Would they be more inert if treated in this way? $\endgroup$
    – sydan
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ Your 'computer' must not be able to render Battlefield 4 I guess. Simple instructions must be enaugh. The smallest ARM-Processor today is 1,9x2mm. Way to big, but things get smaller and smaller, so simple calculation should not be the problem in a short-term scifi world. Transition of instruction isn't either. Just think about RFID and so on. $\endgroup$
    – jawo
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ No, Battlefield 4 would be taking it too far, perhaps instructions as to which materials to target/bond with would be the level we're looking at. When you say RFID, how would you envision that being implemented? $\endgroup$
    – sydan
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ Also I particularly like your section about the H20 reactions, that's certainly something I'd like to think more about. $\endgroup$
    – sydan
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 14:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "But to harm the host is not the only possible usage." - check out Crisis game series for example. $\endgroup$
    – kcpr
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 20:24

Grey goo

A nanobot can't consume matter in the way we do, unless we provide it with a little stomach. A classic nanobot has atomic scale manipulators capable of grasping and moving individual atoms or molecules.

If a group of nanobots wanted to break down an object, they would likely sort the individual atoms into a soup of reusable components. This might take the form of a "grey goo", or possibly a solid block of matter if space were at a premium.

This would contain the same atoms as the original object, just stacked more efficiently.

If they wanted to remove an object from the picture altogether they might convert it to a gas or atomic scale powder and allow the components to simply float away.


There's nothing to stop nanobots from containing simple computing devices. Presumably they would be networked and the intelligence would reside in the collective, similar to an ant colony or bees nest.

  • $\begingroup$ How would the atomic manipulators move atoms? Would they use strong electromagnetic fields? I guess this is moving in to chemistry... I like the idea of a hive-mind style nanobot computer system, I guess it is the most logical way to implement nanobot intelligence. $\endgroup$
    – sydan
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @sydan It's pretty much the only option, it seems unlikely you could pack significant processing power into a single nano machine. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ @sydan - Tiny, tiny weak little electromagnetic fields, or pointy little arms. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 19:33
  • $\begingroup$ Technically you'd probably have to have a hive mind (parallel computing) with a fair amount of redundancy $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, the individuals would be too small to fit a proper computer. They would be capable of short range communication to coordinate their activities, a swarm mind. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2014 at 19:44

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