Thirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies - #2
Overview of all studies: Because of the largely
unexpected transformational power of molecular manufacturing, it is urgent to
understand the issues raised. To date, there has not been anything approaching
an adequate study of these issues. CRN's recommended series of
thirty essential studies
is organized into five sections, covering fundamental theory, possible
technological capabilities, bootstrapping potential, product capabilities, and
policy questions. Several preliminary conclusions are stated, and because our
understanding points to a crisis, a parallel process of conducting the studies
CRN is actively looking for researchers interested in
performing or assisting with this work. Please contact CRN Research Director
Chris Phoenix if you would like more information or if you have comments on
the proposed studies.
what extent is molecular manufacturing counterintuitive and underappreciated
in a way that causes underestimation of its importance?
|To the extent that
the importance of molecular manufacturing (MM) is underestimated, it may not
be adequately studied or prepared for. Several factors may combine to create
substantial underestimates of MM's significance.
concentrated at the end of development — will projections from partial
progress or spinoffs underestimate benefits?
|The benefits of
molecular manufacturing come from automation and
autoproductivity. For example: suppose that parts and labor to build a
1-kg nanofactory cost $1000 per gram, and a million-dollar factory can make
100 kg of product in its lifetime. Then factory cost contributes $10 per
gram of product cost. If the factory can make 90% of its own parts with 90%
automation, then factory cost drops to about $110,000. But if the factory
can make and assemble 100% of its parts with full automation, then factory
cost (and product cost) drop to cost of raw materials: probably a few
dollars per kilogram.
|The first 90%
saves one order of magnitude product cost. The last 10% saves another
three orders of magnitude. And because molecular manufacturing builds
everything using the same bottom-up processes, the last 10% will probably be
the easiest to design—very different from conventional engineering.
complexity and functionality is not limited by manufacturing system
complexity — will projections from MM development difficulty overestimate
product development difficulty?
|A computer built
with a $4 billion semiconductor plant, containing a billion transistors and
millions of lines of software, can be programmed by a child to do simple
tasks. The software is key: it translates meaningful, easy-to-learn commands
into long sequences of basic operations. Likewise, once a product design
methodology is worked out that translates useful, easy-to-learn CAD
specifications into molecular manufacturing operations, anyone who can
create a CAD specification can design a product.
|That same computer
can be programmed by an expert to do trillions of operations and produce a
result more complex than its own physical structure, such as a design for a
better computer. Again, information is key: memory is physically repetitive
but can hold very complex patterns of data. Likewise, a programmable
nanofactory can make products physically more complex than itself by running
sufficiently complex blueprints.
manufacturing may be overshadowed by superficially similar technologies —
is there a risk that people will think they're studying MM when they're
actually studying something else?
include molecular manufacturing and may even be identified with it, since
that was the original meaning of the word as coined by
Eric Drexler. However, the loose constellation of fields called
'nanotechnology' covers everything from photonics to nanoparticles to
molecular electronics. Most nanoscale technology research today is unrelated
to molecular manufacturing. Current work in nanotechnology pursues nanoscale
products, not nanoscale productive systems (which can also make large
products). Policymakers who want to promote molecular manufacturing, but are
unaware of the distinction, may feel a false sense of security from reports
of successes in nanotechnology.
manufacturing is opposed by special interests — is study of it likely to be
stunted by political maneuvering?
|Study of molecular
manufacturing has already been stunted by politics. Mark Modzelewski,
founder of the U.S. NanoBusiness Alliance, has launched vituperative attacks
against commentators who dare to suggest that molecular manufacturing is
possible. Richard Smalley, advisor to the U.S. National Nanotechnology
Initiative leadership, has called for chemists to oppose the "fuzzy-minded
nightmare dream". The
NNI website declares that "nanobots" are "science fiction" and refers to
them as "creatures". [UPDATE: As of August 1, 2004, this
misleading entry has been removed from the NNI FAQ, apparently after
prodding from CRN and others.]
|This probably has
multiple motivations. Some researchers seem to be afraid that refocusing the
NNI toward molecular manufacturing would threaten their research funding.
Others might fear that admitting the possibility of nanobots (while failing
to distinguish simple industrial mechanisms from complex life-like systems)
would increase public fear of destructive or runaway nanotechnology. Some
opposition probably stems from simple incomprehension.
benefits of nanoscale physics (near-frictionless interfaces; perfectly
precise construction; scaling laws) are not widely known — would better
knowledge increase research and development?
|The problems of
nanoscale engineering are famous, perhaps overly so: thermal noise, sticky
surfaces, etc. But some alleged problems, like friction, go away when
atomically precise machines can be built. And almost no one talks about the
benefits, which are substantial.
are perfectly precise in their formulation: an atom is either in the right
place, or you have a different molecule. This means that fabrication can
benefit from absolute precision: there's no need to specify or account for a
that are atomically precise can be almost completely frictionless. This
quality, called 'superlubricity', was analyzed by Drexler in connection with
nanosystems and has recently been observed. Experience from high-friction
MEMS is misleading, since MEMS surfaces are quite imprecise and rough.
nanoscale effects, including thermal noise and springiness of molecules, are
generally seen as problems; their engineering benefits are substantial but
not generally appreciated. For example, thermal noise reduces friction and
can allow jammed machines to unjam themselves. Springy molecules allow less
exacting mechanical design.
inherently more efficient at smaller scales. For example, a meter-scale
robot arm may handle (produce) 1 kg/s with 100 W of friction. Eight
half-meter arms (the same mass) could handle 2 kg/s with 200 W of friction
at the same speed (twice the operating frequency). But throughput scales
linearly with speed, while friction in sliding interfaces scales roughly as
the square of the speed. So handling 1 kg/s should require only 50 W. If
this is scaled to 100-nm arms, then 10,000 kg/s can be handled with 1000 W
operations of programmable, automated manufacturing may be easier at the
nanoscale — will projections from conventional engineering overestimate
engineering uses many different parts built many different ways, usually
with top-down processes that must be re-engineered for each product and
involve many idiosyncratic operations. Programmable manufacturing is
therefore difficult and must be specially designed for each part and
process. By contrast, bottom-up manufacturing uses very few operations in
programmable sequence. It should be relatively easy to generate the sequence
algorithmically to produce the desired shapes and structures.
into products may also be easier to automate. Improved precision, material
properties, and feature size will make simple assembly techniques (e.g.
snap-fit) applicable to a wide variety of products.
|Nanotechnology has been the domain of scientists. Engineers have a much
faster approach to development. How will this affect progress?
|We have known that
the nanoscale existed since atoms and molecules were discovered. But only
recently has it become a realm where we can engineer, rather than merely
investigate. Investigation requires science, slow and careful experiment
punctuated by unpredictable insight. Engineering uses known rules to achieve
|We now know enough
of the nanoscale to predict, with the help of modeling software, what a
particular molecule or system will do. This knowledge is imperfect, but
sufficient to guide design. We also know some basic rule sets that appear
sufficient to design systems for a desired purpose. A novel protein fold has
been designed and tested. Many engineered shapes have been made with DNA.
Although we don't know nearly all there is to know about the nanoscale, we
can design shapes and interactions in a few key domains.
on what we don't know. Engineers focus on what we do know, and what can be
done with it. Nanoscale engineering, now that we know enough to do it, will
go much faster than scientists would estimate.
of molecular manufacturing is likely to be substantially underestimated by
any particular body. However, it is not hard to realize its importance, and
the relevant information and theory have been available for many years. If
one group comprehends the implications of the theory while others ignore it,
then that group may go ahead and develop the technology while others are not
even looking. This could lead to unpleasant surprises.
mechanically guided chemistry a viable basis for a manufacturing technology?
3. What is
the performance and potential of diamondoid machine-phase chemical
manufacturing and products?
4. What is the performance and potential of biological programmable
manufacturing and products?
5. What is the performance and potential of nucleic acid
manufacturing and products?
6. What other chemistries and options should be studied?
applicable sensing, manipulation, and fabrication tools exist?
8. What will be required to develop diamondoid machine-phase chemical
manufacturing and products?
9. What will be required to develop biological programmable
manufacturing and products?
10. What will be required to develop nucleic acid manufacturing and
11. How rapidly will the cost of development decrease?
12. How could an effective development program be structured?
13. What is
the probable capability of the manufacturing system?
14. How capable will the products be?
15. What will the products cost?
16. How rapidly could products be designed?
of today's products will the system make more accessible or cheaper?
18. What new products will the system make accessible?
19. What impact will the system have on production and distribution?
20. What effect will molecular manufacturing have on military and
government capability and planning, considering the implications of arms
races and unbalanced development?
21. What effect will this have on macro- and microeconomics?
22. How can proliferation and use of nanofactories and their products
23. What effect will this have on policing?
24. What beneficial or desirable effects could this have?
25. What effect could this have on civil rights and liberties?
26. What are the disaster/disruption scenarios?
27. What effect could this have on geopolitics?
28. What policies toward development of molecular manufacturing does
all this suggest?
29. What policies toward administration of
molecular manufacturing does all this suggest?
30. How can appropriate policy be made and implemented?
|Studies should begin
|The situation is
extremely urgent. The stakes are unprecedented, and the world is unprepared.
The basic findings of these studies should be verified as rapidly as
possible (months, not years). Policy preparation and planning for
implementation, likely including a crash development program, should begin