Nanotech Scenario Series
Results of Our Ongoing Research
These pages, marked with
GREEN headings, are published for
comment and criticism. These
are not our final findings; some of these opinions will probably change.
LOG OF UPDATES
CRN Research: Overview of Current Findings
Personal Nanofactories (PNs)
NOTE: This page is a summary of, and permanent
link to, a
CRN authored paper originally published in the peer-reviewed
Journal of Evolution and Technology. The paper can be viewed for free
online, and is also available
in a bound, hardcopy format.
A key area of study for CRN is the question of how quickly
technology will develop. To build a nanofactory, you need to start with a
device that can combine individual molecules into useful shapes. A fabricator could build a very small nanofactory, which could build another one twice as
big, and so on. Within a period of weeks, you have a personal desktop model. Products
made by a nanofactory will be assembled from nanoblocks, which will be
fabricated within the nanofactory. The product that comes out of the nanofactory
will be a mostly-solid block or brick that will unfold like a pop-up book or
inflate like an air mattress. Computer aided design (CAD) programs will make it
possible to create state-of-the-art products simply by specifying a pattern of predesigned nanoblocks. The question of when we will see a flood of
products boils down to the question of how quickly the first fabricator can be
designed and built.
|CRN has studied
the steps required to build a nanofactory.
||A key area of study for CRN is
the question of how quickly
develop. Our warnings about
risks and our
won’t have much urgency if
molecular nanotechnology manufacturing is really
50 years away, as many have argued. But it appears that flexible
manufacturing may be developed only a short time after the first basic
Chris Phoenix, CRN's Director of Research, has investigated in detail
the problems that must be solved in order to build a self-contained,
automated, programmable nanofactory that can make useful human-scale
products. This step would make it easy for many people to design and build
products. These products could be as diverse as computer software, and not
much harder to create. (Of course some products, like some programs, will be
incredibly complicated. But many will be as simple as web scripting.)
The first large nanofactory will scale up from a basic
So how hard is it
to build a nanofactory? You need to start with a working fabricator, a
nanoscale device that can combine individual molecules into useful shapes.
But once you have that, the rest is pretty straightforward. An early plan
for molecular manufacturing imagined lots of free-floating
working together to build on a single massive product, molecule by molecule.
A more efficient approach is to fasten down orderly arrays
of chemical fabricators, instruct each fabricator to create a tiny piece of
the product, and then fasten the pieces together, passing them along within
the nanofactory as on an assembly line.
nanofactory will consist of trillions of fabricators, and could only be
built by another nanofactory. But a fabricator could build a very small
nanofactory, with just a few fabricators in it. A smaller nanofactory could build
a bigger one, and so on. Most of the mass of a nanofactory is in the form of
working fabricators, and according to the best estimates we have today, a
fabricator could make its own mass in just a few hours. So a nanofactory
could make another one twice as big in just a few days—maybe
less than a day. Do that about sixty times, and you have a tabletop model.
Artwork by John Burch,
Lizard Fire Studios (3D Animation, Game Development)
Products will be assembled from nanoblocks.
personal nanofactory, each fabricator will make nanoblocks. A good size for a
nanoblock might be a cube 200 nanometers on a side (the distance your
fingernails grow in three minutes). This is small enough to be made by a
single fabricator in a few hours, but large enough to contain a small CPU, a
microwatt of motors or generators, or a fabricator system flexible enough to
duplicate itself if given the right commands. In other words, each
fabricator could make a substantial piece of nanofactory functionality—and
the same modular pieces would be re-used in other products.
The blocky output of a nanofactory will unfold into
Once the nanoblocks are made, they would be assembled by
simple and reliable robotics. The surfaces of each block will be covered
with mechanical fasteners, so that simply picking up two blocks and pushing
them together will make them stick. Eight cubes will fit together to make
one twice as big: a factory that makes eight trillion nanoblocks can push
them together to get a trillion larger, but still very tiny, cubes. This
process is repeated about twenty times, until at the end a very solid and
somewhat blocky product is produced.
The product that
comes out of the nanofactory will be a mostly-solid block or brick. But it
would then unfold like a pop-up book or inflate like an air mattress. The
mechanical joints between the blocks can make temporary as well as permanent
connections, so the unfolding process can be as complex as necessary.
be combined in a convergent assembly process.
Early processing stages will make atomically precise
building blocks using simple, non-robotic nanoscale
mechanosynthetic devices. In each later stage, assembly stations
will assemble eight subcomponents to form a component of twice the size;
thirty doublings will build meter-scale objects from nanoscale parts. Components
will move from smaller
to larger assembly stations at a constant average speed and each stage
will operate at half the frequency of the one before. The total processing
time from input to output would be a few minutes. Inputs are simple chemical compounds
(e.g., acetone); products are large, atomically precise objects which could
range from rolls of tough, flexible, high-efficiency solar cells to laptop
computers containing a billion processors.
CAD programs will make product design relatively simple.
With the system described here,
a designer of MNT products would not have to know any chemistry.
Computer aided design (CAD) programs will make it possible to create
state-of-the-art products simply by specifying a pattern of predesigned
nanoblocks. Nanoblocks will be thousands of times smaller than a cell, so
designs specified at the nanoblock level will still have ample flexibility.
As Richard Feynman famously said, there's
plenty of room at the bottom.
Effectively, then, the question of when we will see a flood
of MNT products boils down to the question of how quickly the first
fabricator can be designed and built. The full results of the study by CRN's
Chris Phoenix have been written up in a long
technical paper, published in the peer-reviewed
Journal of Evolution and Technology.
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