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BRIEFING DOCUMENT:  MARCH 29, 2006

Five-Minute Molecular Manufacturing

SUMMARY: Molecular manufacturing refers to a revolutionary near-future manufacturing technology. Whereas today's manufacturing uses large and imprecise machines, molecular manufacturing will use molecular machines to build engineered molecular products. The performance, value, and scope of this technology will be revolutionary and disruptive.

What the Technology Means

The root idea of molecular manufacturing is that molecule-scale fabricators can output their own mass of product in a few minutes. Built from precisely positioned and strongly bonded molecules, the products will be precise and strong. Computer control will enable a wide range of products, including more manufacturing systems. Doubling the number of fabricators every hour would scale a single fabricator into a kilogram-scale personal nanofactory (PN) in a few days. The fully automated PN would contain arrays of fabricators and equipment to join their output into large-scale, integrated, heterogeneous, complete products.

Molecular manufacturing goes beyond “nanomanufacturing.” A recent NCMS publication [PDF] defines nanomanufacturing as “the controllable, large-scale manipulation of matter at the nanoscale (0.1 to 100 nanometers), to produce identical value-added components and devices.” This definition does not require the use of nanoscale fabrication systems, without which it will be difficult or impossible to produce large-scale, intricate, integrated products. Nanomanufacturing may produce a kilogram of nanotubes or a nanogram of electronic circuits, but it cannot efficiently produce a one-kilogram supercomputer. A nanofactory, containing vast numbers of nanoscale fabricators working in parallel under computer control, would be able to build a supercomputer in an hour. Nanomanufacturing, for the most part, will build components, inputs to further manufacturing processes; molecular manufacturing will build complete products directly from raw materials.

Molecular machines such as ribosomes and Nadrian Seeman's DNA machine can build molecules today. Molecular manufacturing will extend this capability to build higher-performance engineered molecules, including molecular machines. One way to build engineered molecules with programmable structure is to attach a variety of building blocks to a polymer (protein, DNA, etc.) in a programmed sequence. The polymer then folds into its desired shape. Another way to build structure is to attach molecular fragments to selected locations on a growing molecular shape.

A personal nanofactory will be able to control the shape of its product molecules, as well as the joining of product nanosystems into a larger product. Simply changing the blueprint will change the output product. This means that it will produce a huge range of products, and will be able to prototype new products very rapidly, leading to a software-like explosion of new product designs.

Nanoscale machines will have extremely high performance. We've already said that manufacturing systems will be able to produce their weight in complex products in a few minutes. Similarly, motors and generators will be thousands of times more powerful, and computers will be millions of times more compact. In almost any human-scale product, the volume occupied by active components will be negligible. Nanofactory-built materials will be far stronger than today's metals.

Implications of Nanofactory Technology

As a general-purpose manufacturing technology, molecular manufacturing will be able to build highly advanced products useful in almost every field of endeavor, including medicine, environmental remediation, daily life, housing, humanitarian relief, entertainment, computation, transportation, infrastructure, and war. The ability of a personal nanofactory to build another nanofactory in an hour means that manufacturing capacity will not be scarce; because the manufacturing process will be automated and self-contained, the products will be inexpensive to make.

Molecular manufacturing will create many risks, but military implications are perhaps the most perilous. A nation or organization that could design and test new high-tech weapons quickly, then inexpensively build an almost unlimited number of them, could become a potent military force virtually overnight. There are several reasons to think that an arms race based on this technology would not be stable. This logic could lead to preemptive strikes and massive oppression to prevent opponents from developing the technology.

Societal, medical, environmental, and economic implications of molecular manufacturing also may be extreme. Non-scarce manufacturing raises the possibility of planet-scale engineering, which may mitigate existing environmental damage but also may cause new kinds of damage. Engineered machines smaller than cells will be potent medical tools. The ability to manufacture most products from a simple organic feedstock may reduce demand for transportation, warehousing, mined minerals, and of course traditional manufacturing. The ability to build anything you can download plans for could bring Internet-like problems to the physical world.

The timeline of molecular manufacturing development will depend on several factors. What we can say with certainty is that development will become rapidly less expensive and more straightforward; in a decade or so, a large corporation might be able to develop these capabilities in just a few years.

Conclusion

CRN has been studying these issues, in cooperation with a number of experts, for several years. So far, our main conclusion is that there will be no easy answers. Hasty or extreme policies will have unintended and counterproductive consequences—for example, overly stringent limits on the use of nanofactories could create a black market in unrestricted nanofactories and their products.

Unfortunately, research into these implications and how to deal with them is embryonic or nonexistent. If international organizations or policies will be needed, there may not be enough time left to design and implement them unless the effort begins very soon.

Molecular manufacturing will provide major opportunities and massive threats. It is perhaps the only technology that can produce effective solutions to the world's pressing environmental problems. Conversely, its military potential is horrific and may lead to devastating war. It would be easy to miss the positive opportunities and exacerbate the problems through bad policy. It will be difficult to design and implement wise solutions to the varied and interlocking issues, but technological change will not wait for that. Molecular manufacturing demands focused study and wise choices—starting now.


LEARN MORE:  Molecular Manufacturing: What, Why and How

 

             
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