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Frequently Asked Questions
MNT is an abbreviation for molecular nanotechnology. This refers to the concept of building complicated machines out of precisely designed molecules. It is this near-future stage of nanotechnology—also called molecular manufacturing—that will have major societal impact, and which is the focus of CRN's work. Almost all of what is called nanotechnology today is not MNT.
CRN defines molecular manufacturing (MM) as: any technology that implements digital operations, nanoscale construction, self-manufacture, programmable properties, and low error rates. This definition can apply to any technology that meets all five criteria. You can learn more about the definition by clicking here.
We've also identified three stages for the development of MM, each with specific milestones. The first stage is the computer-controlled fabrication of precise molecular structures. The second stage uses nanoscale tools to build more tools, enabling exponential growth of the manufacturing base. The third stage, which integrates nanoscale products into large structures, leads directly to desktop personal nanofactories that could build advanced products. Read more about the three stages here.
CRN is a grassroots non-profit think tank operating under our parent group, World Care, an international 501(c)(3) organization. We are completely dependent on small grants and individual contributions. If you share our belief that CRN needs to keep this dialogue and research moving ahead, we need your help!
The vision of CRN is a world in which nanotechnology is widely used for productive and beneficial purposes, and where malicious uses are limited by effective administration of the technology. We believe that even a technology as powerful as molecular manufacturing can be used wisely and well—but that without adequate information, unwise use will be far too common. The mission of CRN is to raise awareness of the issues presented by nanotechnology: the benefits and dangers, and the possibilities for responsible use.
Because over a billion people in the world speak Chinese, and because advanced nanotechnology may first be developed in China, we are very grateful to Dr. Sinclair Wang, who volunteered to perform this translation for us. We're also indebted to Rebecca Rippin, who has translated several of our pages into Spanish and Portuguese. We welcome other volunteers who can assist in translating our message into more of the world's most commonly used languages, including (but not limited to) Arabic, Bengali, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, and Russian.
It has been claimed repeatedly that some law of chemistry or physics will forbid molecular nanotechnology (MNT), and its transformative application, molecular manufacturing (MM). To date, all such claims have been refuted in detail. In fact, far more serious study has been devoted to confirming the feasibility of MM than to showing why it cannot work. As our Director of Research is fond of saying about proposed objections, "If it doesn't have math, it's probably a myth." Mechanochemistry is already being done, and CRN is not aware of any physical law or engineering obstacle that will prevent the development of molecular manufacturing.
Mechanosynthesis has many advantages over solution-phase synthesis, and should have as broad a range of products. It can apply positional control to select between similar reaction sites and keep reactive molecules isolated.
The process works a bit like enzymes: you fix onto a molecule or two, then twist or pull or push in a precise way until a chemical reaction happens right where you want it. This happens in a vacuum, so you don't have water molecules bumping around. It's a lot more controllable. If you want to add an atom to a surface, you start with that atom bound to a molecule called a "tool tip" at the end of a mechanical manipulator. You move the atom to the point where you want it to end up.
Limited MNT deals only with stiff 3D molecules like diamond, so you know where each atom is relative to its neighbors, and they don't flop or twist around like protein. You move the atom next to the surface, and make sure that it has a weaker bond to the tool tip than to the surface. When you bring them close enough, the bond will transfer. This is ordinary chemistry: an atom moving from one molecule to another when they come close enough to each other, and when the movement is energetically favorable. What's different about mechanosymthesis is that the tool tip molecule can be positioned by direct computer control, so you can do this one reaction at a wide variety of sites on the surface. Just a few reactions give you a lot of flexibility in what you make.
Based on our studies, CRN believes that molecular manufacturing could be successfully developed within the next ten years, and almost certainly will be developed within twenty years. For more, see our Timeline page.
Because the incentive for development of MM is so great.
Let's look at what's required: Maybe a hundred or so mechanochemical reactions to build the parts; some basic robotics and structural design for the fabricators and the nanofactory; a really advanced CAD program and training to design nanoscale machinery; and a nano-lithography or nano-assembly system that can build the first crude fabricator. All of this is engineering, with no need for unpredictable scientific breakthroughs.
Many of these capabilities are being developed rapidly in other nanotechnologies. Others are decreasing exponentially every year or two, like computers to do simulations. We don't know whether it would take a billion, ten billion, or a hundred billion dollars to do it by 2010, but almost certainly by 2020 it will be less than a billion dollars. And general-purpose molecular manufacturing, even in 2020, would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, maybe trillions. Someone somewhere will find a way to fund it.
The whole concept of molecular manufacturing is so complex and unfamiliar, and so staggering in its implications, that some scientists, engineers, and other pundits have flatly declared it to be impossible. The debate is further confused by science-fictional hype and media misconceptions.
It should be noted that none of those who dismiss MM are experts in the field. They may work in chemistry, biotechnology, or other nanoscale sciences or technologies, but are not sufficiently familiar with MM theory to critique it meaningfully.
Many of the objections, including those of the late Richard Smalley, do not address the actual published proposals for MM. The rest are unfounded and incorrect assertions, contradicted by detailed calculations based on the relevant physical laws.
Nanotechnology offers great potential for benefit to humankind, and also brings severe dangers. While it is appropriate to examine carefully the risks and possible toxicity of nanoparticles and other products of nanoscale technology, the greatest hazards are posed by malicious or unwise use of molecular manufacturing. CRN's focus is on designing and promoting mechanisms for safe development and effective administration of MM.
If approached with pessimism, molecular manufacturing appears far too dangerous to be allowed to develop to anywhere near its full potential. However, a naive approach to limiting R&D, such as relinquishment, is flawed for at least two reasons. First, it will almost certainly be impossible to prevent the development of MM somewhere in the world. China, Japan, and other Asian nations have thriving nanotechnology programs, and the rapid advance of enabling technologies such as biotechnology, MEMS, and scanning-probe microscopy ensures that R&D efforts will be far easier in the near future than they are today. Second, MM will provide benefits that are simply too good to pass up, including environmental repair; clean, cheap, and efficient manufacturing; medical breakthroughs; immensely powerful computers; and easier access to space.
We are boosters for safe use of nanotechnology. CRN promotes research into molecular manufacturing not in spite of the risks, but because of the risks. Only through exploration, understanding, and education can we hope to make good decisions about developing and administering this transformative technology.
We don't "know" that it's impossible. To the contrary, the last century has seen an amazing and unprecedented level of international cooperation. What CRN seeks is not a qualitative change in global policy-making, but an incremental advance. The safest course appears to be the timely creation of a strong, stable, progressive international authority to oversee the safe development and effective administration of molecular manufacturing. We readily admit, however, that accomplishing this will be anything but easy.
It could be very bad. Molecular manufacturing will function as a force multiplier for any military that possesses it. First strike options may be seen as more viable than before. The small size, portability, and rapid potential for proliferation will make nano-built weaponry difficult to control and hard to keep out of the hands of terrorists. Needless to say, these dangers are a major factor in motivating CRN to call for urgent research into solutions.
Why develop MM at all then? As stated above, it appears inevitable that MM will be developed somewhere, and probably soon. Moreover, an attempted global shutdown of development would not assure anyone’s safety or security. Rather, it would drive research underground and could result in a dangerous and unstable black market in arms.
There is potential for both good and bad. To begin with, overuse of inexpensive products could cause widespread environmental damage. This must be taken into account and addressed. But there are also numerous potential advantages. On balance, it appears that MM could do far more good than harm to the environment. CRN was invited to address the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to discuss the possible environmental impacts of molecular manufacturing. You can read about what we told them on this page.
The dangers of self-replicating nanobots — the so-called grey goo — have been widely discussed, and it is generally perceived that molecular manufacturing is uncomfortably close to grey goo. However, the proposed production system of MM that CRN supports does not involve free-floating assemblers or nanobots, but much larger factories with all the nanoscale machinery fastened down and inert without external control. As far as we know, a self-replicating mechanochemical nanobot is not excluded by the laws of physics, but such a thing would be extremely difficult to design and build even with a full molecular manufacturing capability. Fiction like Michael Crichton's Prey might be good entertainment, but it's not very good science.
We don't yet have enough data to answer this question. The only thing we can say for certain is that MM has the potential to be extremely disruptive to global and national economies. Some possibilities are described on our Dangers page. CRN Advisor Douglas Mulhall has also written extensively about these issues, but a great deal more study is required.
We should do both. Development and application of molecular manufacturing clearly can have a positive impact on solving many of today's most urgent problems. But it's equally clear than MM can exacerbate many of society's ills. Knowing that it may be developed within the next decade or two (which is not "far future"), makes preparation for MM an urgent priority.
We're glad you asked! The challenges brought by advanced nanotechnology will have to be addressed by a diverse collection of people and organizations. No single approach will solve all problems or address all needs. The only answer is a collective answer, and that will demand an unprecedented collaboration — a network of leaders in science, technology, business, government, and NGOs. It will require participation from people of many nations, cultures, languages, and belief systems. Never before has the world faced such a tremendous opportunity—and never before have the risks been so great. Your help is urgently needed.
We must begin now to develop common understanding, create lines of communication, and build a stable structure that will enable humankind to pass safely through the transition into the nano era. We must build the C-R-Network. Become a C-R-Networker and play a role in the Responsible Nanotechnology movement. Join the conversation at CRN-talk. And see our page titled "What Can I Do?" for more ideas.
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