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Projected Environmental Impacts of Molecular Manufacturing

Prepared by Chris Phoenix

This page provides supplemental information to the presentation made by CRN before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board on December 11, 2003.

The Problem

Nanotechnology may lead to a breakthrough manufacturing technology. Some projected implications have been extreme enough to inspire disbelief and fear. The resulting lack of attention and active opposition are unfortunate, because limited versions may be developed in the next decade, and may require proactive environmental policy attention.

The Technology

Fact: Mechanical systems can do precisely positioned, covalent chemistry in vacuum. (MORE)
    Theory: Nanoscale mechanical systems can do the same. (MORE)
    Theory: A small set of reactions can construct 3D covalent solids, a few atoms at a time, from simple feedstock of small molecules. (MORE)
    Theory: Such 3D covalent solids can implement nanoscale mechanical systems. (MORE)

Fact: Ordinary covalent chemistry is digital: the bond is either there, or not. (MORE)
    Theory: Mechanical chemistry can be extremely reliable, with extremely high yields. (MORE)
    Theory: An extremely reliable and repeatable manufacturing system can be based on positional mechanical chemistry. (MORE)
    Theory: Such a manufacturing system could be completely automated. (MORE)
    Theory: With good engineering, the advantages of molecular manufacturing can outweigh its limitations. (MORE)

Fact: Incredibly complex software has been built using reliable flexible digital operations. (MORE)
    Theory: We could build incredibly complex hardware with reliable programmable chemical operations. (MORE)
    Theory: The range of hardware could include a system capable of copying its structure. (MORE)

Fact: Rapid prototyping and automated assembly are already valuable technologies. (MORE)
    Theory: Automated production of molecular machine parts from straightforward design appears possible. (MORE)
    Theory: Systems and products, including macroscopic products, can be produced from arrays of nanoscale chemical fabricators and larger assembly robotics. (MORE)

If the stated theory is correct, mechanical chemistry can form the basis of a general-purpose fully automated manufacturing system capable of directly fabricating additional manufacturing systems, and also capable of manufacturing large products with nanoscale features and atomic precision. Such a system would be cheap to operate, and manufacturing capability could be increased exponentially at low cost.

Incentives and Timeline for Development

The difficulty of developing a molecular manufacturing system depends on how much chemistry will be required for general-purpose (not “universal”) manufacturing. It appears that a useful manufacturing system could be made with just carbon-lattice chemistry, requiring a small number of reactions on stiff (predictable) substrates. We estimate that with sufficient effort, such a system might be developed as early as 2010. (MORE)

Rapid-prototyping systems such as plastic-jet “printing” are developing toward general-purpose manufacturing. Lithography and biomimetic engineering are also potential competitors. But diamondoid molecular manufacturing is expected to be orders of magnitude better in several ways: stronger and more diverse materials, smaller feature sizes, more compact functionality, and more efficient manufacturing. (MORE)

A general-purpose diamondoid molecular manufacturing system could build advanced products including computers and medical devices that most technology road maps place around 2030-2050. High production capacity would follow rapidly, and the value created by such a system would be enormous. Portable high-performance exponential manufacturing would enable rapid modernization, making it especially attractive to large nations lacking infrastructure. (MORE)

Ecological Impacts of General-purpose Molecular Manufacturing

Small products: The ability to build small-format products intended for use in unconfined environments, including medical and surveillance devices, implies the accumulation of nano-litter. The smallest devices could be considered nanoparticles. (MORE)

Increased consumption: If manufacturing gets very cheap, people will use more products. High-tech products tend to use a lot of power. (MORE)

Weapons: Compact powerful products invite use as weapons. Cleanup after a military or terrorist strike could require new techniques. (MORE)

Environmental remediation: More advanced technology is usually cleaner. Technologically-intensive cleanup could become a lot cheaper. (MORE)

(“Grey goo”: A free-range self-replicating robot will be harder to design than a general-purpose manufacturing system. It is probably feasible with sufficient effort, but not an initial concern.) (MORE)

Broader Policy Issues

How could portable general-purpose manufacturing be regulated? (MORE)

The Nanotechnology Act of 2003 does not study molecular manufacturing technology, only molecular self-assembly (compare with the House version). Can the EPA fill the gap? (MORE)

How can public (and scientific) opposition to this field based on “exponential manufacturing equals self-replication equals grey goo” be mitigated? (MORE)

Will successful regulatory policy require international cooperation? (MORE)


CRN was a non-profit research and advocacy organization, completely dependent on small grants and individual contributions.


Copyright © 2002-2008 Center for Responsible Nanotechnology TM        CRN was an affiliate of World Care®, an international, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization.