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Compiled by Chris Phoenix, Director of Research
This page provides further in-depth information toCRN's EPA panel presentation.
The steps to develop this technology are straightforward:
These steps can be taken in order, although for most rapid development some of them should be overlapped. The success of the endeavor can be evaluated after each step and is almost guaranteed after step 2, limiting the potential cost of failure. The total cost to develop this new manufacturing technology would be quite large, probably in the billions of dollars, and the rate of expenditure for a rapid early program could be quite high.
Each of these steps should require less than five years. Most of them can be
done in parallel. The cost and difficulty will drop rapidly due to improvements
in enabling technologies such as scanning probe microscopy and chemistry
simulation. At a rough guess, the cost to complete all these steps by 2010
might be $10 billion. The cost to complete them by 2015, starting in 2010,
might be under $1 billion. However, as explained below, early development may
be worth a high cost.
Carbon lattice--diamond and buckytubes--forms the strongest known material. No other general-purpose manufacturing system can produce this material.
The feature size of molecular manufacturing is naturally a few atoms wide--less than a nanometer. Rapid-prototyping systems and lithography will not achieve this for many decades. The atomic precision of biomimetic engineering is blunted by the process of shape formation: the smallest features, such as alpha helices and beta sheets, require hundreds or thousands of atoms.
With small features comes compact functionality. As Feynman said, there's plenty of room at the bottom. A small CPU with nanometer-scale logic elements could fit inside a single transistor of today's computer chips. The use of strong diamond materials also allows extremely high power density: a car engine could fit into a cubic millimeter.
Scaling laws and preliminary architecture studies indicate that a tabletop
factory should be able to produce its mass in approximately an hour. Molecular
manufacturing is the only manufacturing technology currently contemplated that
would be able to directly fabricate manufacturing systems. The ability to
produce new manufacturing capital so rapidly has large economic and strategic
No other technology combines nanoscale features with diamond-class materials. Products that can be built directly with this technology include computers about nine orders of magnitude ahead of today's semiconductors; cheap, compact arrays of medical sensors and microsurgical instruments; and aerospace hardware and structure saving 90% or even 99% of the weight of today's systems. Molecular manufacturing could make such products available decades ahead of any competing technology.
A self contained, fully automated, general purpose manufacturing system would
be "appropriate technology" for almost any environment. If the factory and the
raw materials were reasonably cheap, it could out-compete most other
manufacturing of products in its domain. The raw materials will be small
organic chemicals, and the ability to duplicate its own structure will make the
factory as cheap as any product. This indicates that molecular manufacturing
could rapidly dominate and/or create the manufacturing infrastructure for a wide
variety of high-tech products.
Ecological Impacts of General-purpose Molecular Manufacturing
Although the proposed manufacturing system would not involve small-format
free-floating devices, it could be used to manufacture small products as well as
larger human-scale products. Small products will be useful in at least a few
applications, such as surveillance and (with sufficient additional research)
some medical applications. The simplest products might be as small as 100 or
200 nm, and would be difficult to collect after use. Note that this does not
imply a "grey goo" threat, because such simple products would have no
manufacturing ability. However, even inert nanoparticles may pose health
hazards, and large accumulations of litter may lead to environmental damage.
Several factors of molecular manufacturing imply that factories and their
products may become very cheap (aside from licensing costs). People will have
little natural incentive to avoid unnecessary consumption. Computers and
networks are already a major source of power use, and a proliferation of
higher-tech products--including high-tech integration with traditional
products--may be a major source of power drain. Solar cells are also expected
to become cheap, but this raises questions of land use and microclimate
Small computers, powerful motors, and intricate cheap manufacturing imply the
ability to create whole new classes of weapons, especially antipersonnel
weapons. For example, a lethal antipersonnel mine could be made small enough to
make its cleanup more like decontamination than like minesweeping. Such weapons
could be manufactured in great quantity, could be dispersed widely, and would
probably be very attractive to terrorists. This is only one of a variety of
Cleanup of spills may require large amounts of equipment rapidly deployed. It is possible that molecular manufacturing could be fast enough to manufacture
such equipment on the spot. Even if this is not the case, the low cost of
production would make it cheaper to stockpile and use the equipment. For some
applications, the ability to cost-effectively build large arrays of small
machinery may be useful for mechanical cleaning.
The environmental dangers of self-replicating
nanobots--"grey goo"--have been
widely discussed, and it is widely perceived that molecular manufacturing is
uncomfortably close to grey goo. However, the proposed production system of
molecular manufacturing does not involve 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 very difficult to
design and build even with a full molecular manufacturing capability.
With programmable chemical manufacturing as the base technology, a
general-purpose manufacturing system could be packaged as a home appliance. Such a thing would be very desirable and easy to smuggle. Product blueprints
will be digital information, even easier to propagate untraceably. It is
unlikely that restrictive regulations will suffice to prevent the use of such
systems, at least by criminals. However, complete lack of regulation would
allow too much damage to be done, either by collective misuse such as
nano-litter or by individuals making and using dangerous or destructive
products. Careful policy will be necessary to minimize undesirable use without
fueling a black market.
The House version would have called for detailed study of molecular
manufacturing. The final version calls for only a feasibility study of
molecular self-assembly, which is a much more limited technology. This may lead
to a policy gap. The final stages of development of molecular manufacturing may
progress rapidly, leaving no time for careful policymaking. Since the
technology may have substantial environmental impacts, a body such as the EPA
may be well positioned to fill the policy gap. The first step would be a
theoretical study of the capabilities of molecular manufacturing; this would be
quite easy to do, since much of the theory is already laid out in
A major source of opposition to molecular manufacturing and molecular
nanotechnology is the popular association with so-called grey goo. As explained
this association is largely unfounded; current plans for molecular manufacturing
systems are nothing like grey goo. ("Assemblers", though mentioned in the 1986
Engines of Creation, do not appear in the 1992 technical work
log jam of the current nanotechnology "debate" could be freed by
public recognition that grey goo is not very related to molecular
manufacturing. How could this be achieved?
A revolution in manufacturing could have a variety of effects that cross or
ignore national borders. Some examples include nano-litter, a sharp increase in
space flight, shifts in geopolitical relations caused by shifting financial or
military conditions, and easy smuggling of undesired products or the means of
producing them. It appears likely that international cooperation will be
necessary to deal adequately with some of these issues.
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