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Nanotech Scenario Series

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Results of Our Ongoing Research

These pages, marked with GREEN headings, are published for comment and criticism. These are not our final findings; some of these opinions will probably change.   LOG OF UPDATES 

CRN Research: Overview of Current Findings   

bulletTimeline for Molecular Manufacturing    YOU ARE HERE
bulletPersonal Nanofactories (PNs)
bulletProducts of Molecular Manufacturing
bulletBenefits of Molecular Manufacturing
bulletDangers of Molecular Manufacturing  
bulletNo Simple Solutions
bulletAdministration Options
bulletThe Need for Early Development
bulletThe Need for International Development
bulletThirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies

Estimating a Timeline for Molecular Manufacturing

Overview:  Molecular manufacturing (MM) means the ability to build devices, machines, and eventually whole products with every atom in its specified place. Today the theories for using mechanical chemistry to directly fabricate nanoscale structures are well-developed and awaiting progress in enabling technologies. Assuming all this theory works—and no one has established a problem with it yet—exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing appears to be inevitable. It might become a reality by 2010 to 2015, more plausibly will by 2015 to 2020, and almost certainly will by 2020 to 2025. When it arrives, it will come quickly. MM can be built into a self-contained, personal factory (PN) that makes cheap products efficiently at molecular scale. The time from the first fabricator to a flood of powerful and complex products may be less than a year. The potential benefits of such a technology are immense. Unfortunately, the risks are also immense.

Molecular manufacturing can make large, complex products with almost every atom precisely placed. The goal of molecular manufacturing (MM) is to build complex products with almost every atom in its proper place. This requires creating large molecular shapes and then assembling them into products. The molecules must be built by some form of chemistry. Many MM proposals assume that building shapes of the required variety and complexity will require robotic placement (covalent bonding) of small chemical pieces. Once the molecular shapes are made, they must be combined to form structures and machines. Again, this is probably done most easily by robotic assembly. Theoretical studies have shown that it should be possible to build diamond lattice by mechanically guided chemistry, or mechanochemistry. By building the lattice in various directions, a wide variety of parts can be made—parts that would be familiar to a mechanical engineer, such as levers and housings. A robotic system used to build the molecular parts could also be used to assemble the parts into a machine. In fact, there is no reason why a robotic system can't build a copy of itself. In sharp contrast to conventional manufacturing, only a few (chemical) processes are needed to make any required shape. And with each atom in the right place, each manufactured part will be precisely the right size—so robotic assembly plans will be easy to program. A small nano-robotic device that can use supplied chemicals to manufacture nanoscale products under external control is called a fabricator.
  More than forty years ago, Richard Feynman said, "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom."  Molecular nanotechnology includes only one additional, and relatively easy, step: combining the small shapes and machines produced by individual chemical workstations into large products. The easiest way to do this is to combine small pieces into larger pieces, and then join those to make still larger ones. This process is called convergent assembly, and it can be used to make products large enough to be used directly by people. CRN has published a peer-reviewed paper, titled "Design of a Primitive Nanofactory", showing how large numbers of fabricators can be combined to create a personal nanofactory (PN) capable of making human-scale products. It appears that this might be accomplished in as little as a few months after the first fabricator is built. The resulting PN would be easy to program to make a wide variety of products, including duplicate PNs.
Molecular manufacturing will be highly desirable for both commercial and military projects. Although there are several possible ways to develop an MM capability, the best way appears to be the creation of fabricators and then nanofactories that can make diamond lattice (as explained above). Diamond is very strong, and can be used to build a wide variety of useful gadgets including motors and computers. This implies that the products of a nanofactory will also be strong, and that active functionality can be extremely compact. For example, an engine powerful enough to drive a car would fill less than a cubic centimeter, and a modern supercomputer would require less than a cubic millimeter. Diamond structure would be at least ten times as strong as steel for the same weight—probably closer to 100 times as strong. Because of the simple, and massively parallel, manufacturing used by a nanofactory, the complexity of a product would not affect either the manufacturing cost or the time to build it. A new design—any new design—could be built in just a few hours. A nanofactory, like an fabricator, will be able to duplicate itself. Nanofactories will be as cheap as any other product, so any desired number of nanofactories can be built. Since nanofactories can be used for final manufacturing as well as rapid prototyping, product design will not have to concern itself with "manufacturability."  As soon as a prototype is designed, it can be built. As soon as the prototype is approved, mass production can be started—and finished a few hours later.
  The design of an MM version of a product will actually be easier than today's process. Instead of designing a shape and then worrying about how to whittle down a block of material or carve out a mold, the designer simply specifies the shape—and the nanofactory will create diamond structure to fill the specified volume. Instead of worrying about fastening parts together, the designer can simply tell the CAD software that they should be attached. The surfaces to be joined will be covered by the CAD software with a simple mechanical interlocking mechanism (described in CRN's Nanofactory paper), and the convergent assembly process only needs to press them together. Because power and computer functionality will be much smaller than today's devices, the designer will have much less difficulty in making the functional parts of the design fit into the space required. And because a vast range of products can be specified by a single CAD system and manufactured by a single nanofactory design, a well-trained MNT designer will be able to design a large number of products, just as a well-trained software engineer can write a wide variety of programs.
  The strength and power of products, the compactness of their functional components, and the ease and speed of design and production, combine to make MM a very useful technology. Vast amounts of money can be saved in the product design process, in manufacturing, in distribution and warehousing. New product lines can be designed, manufactured, and marketed in a few weeks. The same efficiencies apply to military hardware as well. Each new weapons system could be developed and deployed much more quickly and cheaply. Prototypes and tests would be generated much faster and cost far less. Since a prototype design could be immediately manufactured in any desired quantity, deployment would also be much faster. New kinds of weapon systems could be contemplated. Both commercial and military/governmental organizations will have a strong incentive to fund the rapid development of MM, even at a cost of billions of dollars.
It's a very short step from a fabricator to a nanofactory. (MORE) As described above, a fabricator is a small machine that can create precise shapes out of molecules, assemble those shapes into machines, and ultimately duplicate itself when supplied with the necessary broadcast instruction stream. The duplication is necessary because a single fabricator could not build more than a small number of tiny products. A fabricator is a worthwhile goal, because although it can't make large products, many fabricators can be combined to form a nanofactory. CRN has published a technical paper describing the process and techniques required to bootstrap from a sub-micron fabricator to a personal nanofactory; it appears that this can be done in a few months if suitable design and analysis is done beforehand. So we can assume that a fabricator project will include a nanofactory project, and that a useful nanofactory will appear within months of the first fabricator.
Once the first nanofactory is built, a flood of products will follow. A wide range of products can be designed simply by sticking small functional blocks together; the joining process is covered in detail in the paper mentioned above. Effectively, then, the question of when we will see a flood of MM-built products boils down to the question of how quickly the first fabricator can be designed and built. Once the first desktop nanofactory has been built, its first product likely will be another identical nanofactory. Then, following the simple math of exponential duplication, it's easy to see that within months millions or even billions of personal nanofactories conceivably could be in operation. A key understanding of MM is that it leads not just to improved products, but to a vastly improved and accelerated means of production.
Most of today's nanotech is different from molecular manufacturing. There is a difference between molecular manufacturing technology and today's nanomaterials research and other nanoscale technologies. Most of the nanotech work now being funded involves building small structures and searching for novel properties, then figuring out ways to use these new properties in new products. This is very useful work, and in many cases will be very profitable. But it is quite different from MM, which is concerned with building a single device: a flexible, easy-to-use, preferably large-scale, molecular manufacturing system. (Of course, once created this system could immediately start making a wide range of products.)  Some results of current nanotechnology research will be enabling technologies for MM: technologies that make it easier to build a fabricator. Non-nanotech fields will also contribute enabling technologies. 
Designing a fabricator will be hard but feasible.  (MORE) Designing a fabricator will not be easy. Mechanochemistry, the formation or breaking of chemical bonds under direct mechanical control, has been demonstrated, but it will take a lot more work to develop the mechanochemical techniques to build diamond and other strong materials. These techniques will require some basic research; however, preliminary work (by Eric Drexler, Robert Freitas, Ralph Merkle, and John Michelsen, for example) shows that there are several different kinds of mechanochemical reactions that should be able to build diamond. Unless all this work is wrong and no other techniques can be discovered, building atomically precise diamondoid shapes will be possible. The small-scale robotic device to do the required mechanochemical operations has to be designed, including the control system. This is mostly a matter of simple mechanics. The integration of the mechanochemical device with other devices to support the parts and product, deliver "feedstock" chemicals from an uncontrolled exterior to a well-controlled interior, and so on should also be relatively straightforward—at least compared with designing a spacecraft.
  A modern spacecraft contains millions of parts (estimates for the Space Shuttle range from 2.5 to six million). A large spacecraft design must account for fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, vibration and resonance on many time scales, avionics and other control, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, combustion dynamics, hydraulics, cryogenics, and biomedical issues. (Thanks to an anonymous poster on Slashdot for pointing this out.)  By contrast, a fabricator design must account for chemistry, mechanical engineering including stiffness, control structures, and a different set of forces than we're used to at the macro-scale (e.g. van der Waals force). Note that many problems can be treated as mechanical engineering issues without greatly increasing the size and complexity of the fabricator. One example is thermal noise: as analyzed in Nanosystems, if the parts are stiff enough, it's not a problem even at room temperature.
Building the first fabricator will also be hard. Building the first fabricator may be even harder than designing it. (Building the second and subsequent fabricators will be relatively easy.)  If the first fabricator is diamond-based, the diamond must be formed in small precise shapes without the benefit of fabricator mechanisms. If the first fabricator is built of DNA, protein, or other "wet" chemistry products, it must either work underwater while protecting the workpiece, or must work after being dried. Neither of these option is very attractive. However, we are already learning to do mechanochemistry and nanomanipulation with scanning probe microscopes. The use of buckytubes as scanning probes is fairly new, but is already proving useful. There are a variety of potential ways to build structures even smaller and more precise to do the required chemistry. Again, unless every single possibility we can think of turns out to be unfeasible, a fabricator can be built.
We have lots of enabling technologies already. We don't yet know whether the enabling technologies we have today are far enough advanced to start a molecular fabricator project. Enabling technologies are of four basic types: fabrication, manipulation, sensing, and simulation. First, we'll need to make very small parts with intricate shapes. Semiconductor lithography is making features a few tens of nanometers wide. Buckytube welding in an electron microscope has been demonstrated, and also growing buckytubes along templates, including branching templates. Dip-pen nanolithography promises to make built-up 3D structures with a variety of different chemicals and 2.5-nm feature size. We have the ability to make molecule-sized molds and deposit a few atoms of metal into them. We can design a few structures with self-assembling DNA and other chemicals. There are many other techniques that we don't have space to list here. Second, we'll need to move those parts into the right position to assemble machines. Possible techniques include optical tweezers, pushing with scanning probes, microfluidics, biological motors, and constructed motors such as the "DNA Tweezers". Third, we'll probably need to see what we're doing. Electron microscopes can resolve a few nanometers. Proximal probes can resolve fractions of an angstrom. We may even get help from sub-wavelength optical techniques, including near-field optical probes, photon entanglement, and several kinds of interferometry. Some of these may not be useful in practice, but near-field optical probes have already been demonstrated and used. The fourth enabling technology is simulation. Computers are getting faster, algorithms are improving, and we can already simulate hundreds or thousands of interacting atoms.
Fabricator design is probably no harder than some projects we've already done. If a fabricator project is not feasible today, it will surely be feasible in a few years. Most of the enabling technologies mentioned here, and many others as well, are being actively developed for their present-day commercial potential. As the technologies develop, they will reach a point where they can easily be re-used in a fabricator project. The mechanics of the project will become far easier in just a few years. The chemistry will become easier as more powerful computers are developed for simulation, but already it is feasible to test individual reactions in simulation. The question is not whether a fabricator project is feasible, but when it will become economically viable or a military necessity.
  A new, large spacecraft or weapon system costs tens of billions of US$ to develop, and molecular nanotechnology will be far more useful than any single aerospace or weapons system. In today's dollars, total development cost for the original Space Shuttle was probably around $10-15 billion. At that rate, each part would have cost an average of $2,000-$6,000 to design. How many parts will a fabricator require?  Estimates of the atom count, based in part on comparisons with bacteria, frequently come in around 1 billion atoms. Diamond has 176 carbon atoms per cubic nanometer, so if each part were only one cubic nanometer, a fabricator might have 6 million parts—comparable to the Shuttle. With parts 10 nanometers on a side, it would have only 6,000 parts. For comparison, a typical four-cylinder automobile engine has about 450 parts and a bacterium may have 3,600 different molecules. As opposed to a "wet" design like a bacterium or a cutting-edge aerospace design, most of a fabricator's parts would not interact with each other and could be designed separately. It appears, then, that design of a fabricator falls somewhere between a car engine and the Space Shuttle in complexity. Construction, if not feasible today, will be feasible soon.
A fabricator within a decade is plausible— maybe even sooner. The Space Shuttle took less than ten years to design and build, from 1972 to 1981. The atomic bomb took only three years, from 1942 to 1945. Both of these programs involved more new science research and more development of new technologies and techniques than an assembler program would likely require. As analyzed above, they probably cost more too. The main question in estimating a timeline for fabricator development, then, is when it will be technically and politically feasible. There are probably five or more nations, and perhaps several large companies, that could finance a molecular fabricator effort starting in this decade. The technical feasibility depends on the enabling technologies. Even a single present-day technology, dip-pen nanolithography, may be able to fabricate an entire proto-fabricator with sufficient effort. At this point, we have not seen anything to make us believe that a five-year $10 billion fabricator project, starting today, would be infeasible, though we don't yet know enough to estimate its chance of success. Five years from now, we expect that a five-year project will be obviously feasible, and its cost may be well under $5 billion.
  The National Science Foundation, and others, have estimated that even non-MM nanotechnology will be worth a trillion dollars or more by 2015. By the time people realize that it's possible to build a nano-based manufacturing system, it will probably be obvious that such a project would be quite profitable (in addition to the military imperatives). This implies that companies and/or governments will start crash programs, comparable perhaps to the Manhattan project. Of course there are other development scenarios, but we feel this is one of the more likely ones. We also cannot rule out the possibility that a large, well-funded, secret development program for molecular manufacturing has been in operation somewhere for several years and may achieve success sooner than any public program. 

Additional Reading:

See our page, Focusing on Fabricators, highlighting a commentary by nanotechnology researcher Ralph Merkle.

Submit your criticism, please!

A lot of nanotechnologists have said that a fabricator is too complicated and difficult to be worth building.

Remember that molecular nanotechnology and current nanomaterials research are two different fields. These people are today's nanotechnologists, and with all due respect, they are talking outside their area of expertise. The savings in semiconductor processing alone would make MNT worth doing at any price under $10 billion, and the same is true for hundreds of other fields.

But the laws of physics say that...

The laws of physics, including quantum uncertainty, thermal noise, Heisenberg uncertainty, tunneling, and resonance, do not appear to pose severe problems. Nanosystems explained in detail how mechanical chemistry can be accomplished at room temperature with better than 1 in 1015 error rates. Things are a little different at small scales, but after all, the cells in your body use molecular machines made of floppy protein and they work just fine.

The theory may work, but it takes decades to develop stuff in real life.

That depends on how much pure research has to be done, and how much of the job is just engineering. It also depends on the amount of money that's thrown at a problem, and the creation of a project management structure that can use the money efficiently. Even the Space Shuttle took less than a decade, and the atomic bomb took one-third that. Aside from some chemistry, a molecular fabricator will not require much pure research, and a useful nanofactory will require very little additional research since it can be designed at the mechanical level.

In December, 2007, reader Rick Cook offered this objection:

Your timeline for fabbers isn't just wildly optimistic, it's as close to flat impossible as anything I've seen this side of Young Earth Creationism. For starters, there is an enormous difference between having a proof of principle device running in a lab, to having a working prototype, to having a pilot model in limited production to having something in full-scale production. Not to mention the time it takes for even the most wildly popular device to be widely adopted and finally for those effects to work their way through society.

It takes time. Each of those steps takes time and usually a number of false starts and development cycles. And by time I mean years, especially in the early phases.

However to me the biggest problem, which overshadows all the others, is you're proposing trying to regulate a process none of us understand at all clearly. Given the history of similar efforts, it's almost a certainty that anything we do now to control nanotechnology (however defined) is going to be wrong. We don't know where the technology is going or how it's going to affect us. If we try to control it now we will undoubtedly strain at gnats, which will ultimately be unimportant, while being trampled into the dust by the herd of rampaging camels we didn't see coming.

Thanks, Rick, for your input. Below is part of our full response (read the rest here):

CRN doesn't talk about the possible emergence of molecular manufacturing by 2015-2020 because we think that this timeline is necessarily the most realistic forecast. Instead, we use that timeline because the purpose of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is not prediction, but preparation.

Recognizing that this event could plausibly happen in the next decade -- even if the mainstream conclusion is that it's unlikely before 2025 or 2030 -- elicits what we consider to be an appropriate sense of urgency regarding the need to be prepared. Facing a world of molecular manufacturing without adequate forethought is a far, far worse outcome than developing plans and policies for a slow-to-arrive event...  MORE ON THIS TOPIC


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