Foresight Update 15

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 15 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5 | Page6


VP Gore on Nanotechnology

Sees Hope for Environmental Sustainability

Only days before he became a candidate for Vice President, Senator Al Gore held hearings on "New Technologies for a Sustainable World," including testimony by Foresight president Eric Drexler. In an earlier issue we printed Dr. Drexler's written testimony; the following is the oral testimony followed by discussion with Senator Gore. (Ordering information for the complete hearing transcript is included at the end of this article.)

Dr. Drexler. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to address this committee on a topic that I believe will one day become a dominant concern in these halls. The focus of this hearing is particularly appropriate because a concern with long-term consequences of technology for human welfare and the environment has guided my research for many years. Partly as a result of that concern, the technology that I am about to discuss does address issues of industrial ecology, including decarbonization and dematerialization, as discussed by Dr. Ausubel, and also addresses the wholesale transformation of the technology base called for by Dr. Banks. I believe it does meet the criteria for an environmentally critical technology.

In the decade since I first discussed molecular nanotechnology in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we have seen these ideas go from broad theoretical concepts to a set of detailed designs, supported increasingly by computer simulation using state-of-the-art tools and drawing from chemistry, and to the beginnings of experimental demonstration of the crucial principles.

Five years ago when I spoke on the subject, audiences would reply, "You say that the basis of molecular nanotechnology is putting molecular building blocks in precise places, but is that really possible?" Today that question does not arise because part of my talk is a slide showing 35 precisely placed xenon atoms on the surface of a nickel crystal, spelling the letters IBM, from work done by Don Eigler's group at IBM's Almaden Research Center.

As chairman of the Foresight Institute, I have chaired the Foresight conference series on molecular nanotechnology. The most recent of these was cosponsored by Stanford University and the University of Tokyo. There is strong interest in these topics in Japan, as I think is shown by the recent commitment by MITI of $185 million over the next 10 years to an effort that the journal Nature describes as developing nanotechnology. Momentum toward the development of this technology is building around the world, and I would like to briefly describe the results and studies of where these developments can lead.

The basis of this technology, as I said, is building with molecular building blocks and precise positional control. This molecule-by-molecule control can become the basis of a manufacturing technology that is cleaner and more efficient than anything we know today. It is a fundamentally different way of processing matter to make products that people want.

In working with molecular building blocks, it resembles processes we see in farms and in forests and, like those processes, rather than consuming fossil fuels and emitting CO2, it can take sunlight and CO2 and convert them into products, acting as a net CO2 consumer.

This technology will clearly have broad applications. If you can work with the basic building blocks of matter, you can make virtually anything, producing a much wider range of products than can be made by processes that lack this direct control of the fundamental pieces.

Among the applications that have been identified are new molecular instruments for science and medicine. One example of that would be a device able to read DNA at the rate we see DNA being read in the cell: a dividing cell performs operations that are like those of sequencing a human genome, but does this in a matter of hours rather than years, and does it in a microscopic volume rather than in a large collection of laboratories.

Design studies indicate that one can build extremely compact and energyefficient computers, decreasing both the volume and energy consumption by factors of roughly 1 billion.

Stronger materials can be constructed, including materials that can be used to make lighter, stronger, more efficient vehicles. Another capability will be the manufacture of inexpensive solar cells that are mechanically tough enough to be used as roofing materials and paving materials. It would seem that this combination of capabilities can address some of the basic problems of the environmental crisis that faces us today.

Because this technology does not depend on new breakthroughs in fundamental science--though it will surely require a vast amount of applied science--it seems that the pace of development will depend not on unpredictable breakthroughs but on the magnitude and date of initiation of a strongly focused system development effort, an effort aimed at developing pieces and putting them together.

As I note in my written testimony, there are cultural problems in the scientific community, which is aimed at the study of nature, when the problem at hand is making pieces that fit together to form systems. Pieces fitting together does not happen spontaneously; it requires a degree of planning that is unfamiliar in the molecular sciences today.

I would also note that development in these directions appears likely to yield large scientific benefits long before it produces results on a large enough physical scale to have environmental consequences. So, it does seem that the developmental pathway will deliver major rewards at an early date.

    Senator Gore:
What you are talking about when you use the phrase molecular nanotechnology is really a brand new approach to fabrication . . .

Today the U.S. research community has not yet reached a consensus regarding the potential of this field. I believe this is because it has not yet addressed the basic scientific issues in a systematic way. This is an interdisciplinary topic. Putting the pieces together in a single mind or in a single group takes effort, and that effort has not yet been made.

If we conduct idle debates on molecular nanotechnology, batting words around in the press, while others are conducting active research, we are going to find that others learn the answers to our questions and are in a better position to exploit the technology. I believe that it is time to assess the potential of molecular nanotechnology and to choose a course of action. An appropriate body for conducting a preliminary study might be the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. There may be other options.

I think it is clear that if the potential is even half as great as the evidence now indicates, then medical, economic, and environmental concerns will favor vigorous development. The first question is, Are the facts actually as they now appear?

This technology will not by itself solve our environmental problems, but in the coming years, I believe that molecular nanotechnology can become a basis for sustainable development, raising the material standard of living worldwide, while decreasing resource consumption and environmental impact. Thank you.

Inserted at this point in the hearing transcript are the written testimony and an illustration of the 3,557-atom planetary gear.

Senator Gore. Well, that sure was interesting. I will tell you right now, as I have just communicated to Mike Nelson here, I will formally request an OTA report on these technologies. They have already done a background paper, but I will request the report that you suggest.

Just one brief question before I go to Mr. Weinberg.

You mentioned that MITI has dedicated $185 million to the development of this technology. Do you have an estimate of the comparable U.S. figure?

Dr. Drexler. Well, first, I would like to make a slight sharpening of the point regarding MITI. When they speak of nanotechnology, they are speaking of a certain range of technologies that has a strong overlap but is not a one-to-one correspondence with what I have described.

In terms of money being spent in the United States that is earmarked for the development of complex molecular systems, a molecular systems engineering effort that can lead toward molecular nanotechnology, I am not a close observer of these matters. Someone may well correct me and say, "Oh, look at this budget item here," but I do not know of a major investment. But there certainly is strongly relevant work being done in many laboratories. I in no way would wish to slight the importance of that.

Senator Gore. Nothing comparable is underway in the United States.

Dr. Drexler. Nothing comparable.

Senator Gore. One other point: When you use the word "nanotechnology," a lot of times these new concepts come at us with words attached to them, and the words are used in different ways by different people.

Just so I am clear in my own mind about this, the first part of that word, nano, is really a measurement word that connotes something that is real small, right? [Laughter.]

Dr. Drexler. Yes.

Senator Gore. All right. There seemed to me to be three different ways in which the word has been used. Nanotechnology has sometimes been used to describe very small etching operations of the kind you see in the smallest computer chips; correct?

Dr. Drexler. Yes.

Senator Gore. That is not really what you are talking about. There would be some overlap at the boundaries, but that is not really what you are talking about.

Second, there has been an interesting discussion of what might be called micromachines, and sometimes the word "nanotechnology" has been used to describe that whole effort. Correct?

Dr. Drexler. Yes.

Senator Gore. And that is not really what you are talking about, either; although again there is some overlap at the boundary.

What you are talking about when you use the phrase molecular nanotechnology is really a brand new approach to fabrication, to manufacturing, whereas the way we make things [today], we will take some substance in bulk and then whittle down the bulk to the size of the component we need, and then put different components together and make something.

What you are describing with the phrase molecular nanotechnology is a completely different approach, which rests on the principle that your first building block is the molecule itself, and you are saying we have all the basic research breakthroughs that we need to build things one molecule at t time, all we need are the applications of the research necessary to really do it.

You are saying that the advantages of taking a molecular approach are really quite startling, and that as a result, you believe it is advisable to really explore what it would take to develop these new technologies.

The best evidence that the research breakthroughs and the conceptual breakthroughs have long since occurred is that Dr. Richard Feynman made a speech 33 years ago in which he essentially outlined the whole field, and even the researchers at the cutting edge today were sort of surprised when they went back and read the speech, and found out that the basic concept has been available for a long time.

Is that basically on target, or would you like to qualify it or recast it?

Dr. Drexler. I would say that the set of distinctions that you draw are correct and are very important to understanding the field.

With respect to the terminology, so nearly as I can tell from what I have seen in print, I coined the word "nanotechnology" in the mid-1980's, and it has subsequently become a buzzword. It is appropriate etymologically to use "nanotechnology" to describe other small-scale technologies, but, as you point out, those are fundamentally different.

The degree of overlap between nanolithography and micromachines, on the other hand, and molecular nanotechnology, on the other hand, appears to be remarkably slight, even though those subjects have commonly been confused in the popular press.

As I said, I think that we will need a lot of applied science research in pursuing these goals, but you are correct in stating that the basic science is in place. Richard Feynman did indeed point in these directions, in a talk in December of 1959, and that has been an inspiration to many people.

Senator Gore. All right. Thank you very much. We will come back to this as time permits.

The following are excerpts from discussions later in the hearing. An ellipsis (. . .) indicates some discussion has been omitted.

Senator Gore. There are at least three generic problems here. No. 1: This discussion cannot take place without reference to the larger macroeconomic signals that stifle the introduction of new technologies if consumers of technology are getting a misleading signal from the marketplace.

You talked about how cheap fossil fuel prices were back then. They are cheaper now than they were then. . . . Consequently, we are getting inaccurate and misleading signals from the marketplace, because the national security cost is not calculated in the price, the environmental cost is treated as an externality, which is absurd but there it is. Consequently, we are getting the inaccurate market signal.

The second generic problem is that when a new technology is developed in a Government program, it sometimes remains unattached to the stream of incentives that we rely on to pull new developments into the stream of commerce. That is not an unsolvable problem, but it is one that needs to be recognized clearly and precisely in the construction of any new technology development program.

The third generic problem is, in my view, by all odds the most serious. That is, inertia. When an existing suite of technologies and patterns gain currency, the ability of an organization, let alone a society, to introduce a totally new, in some ways incongruent, technology into that pattern is extremely difficult, and can often only be accomplished if there is a focused effort to address the overall context within which the new technology has to be introduced.

We are now at a major turning point in the history of civilization in which a large number of new technologies have to be introduced on a broad scale simultaneously. The inertia we confront, in trying to think through how to accomplish that, is really almost overpowering. Indeed, it has been up until now, overpowering, and it cannot remain so.

I am wondering if any of you have any comments on those three generic problems, or any of them.

Dr. Drexler. In connection with your earlier remarks regarding the advantages of developing technologies that are simultaneously more productive and cleaner, I think that to the extent that people see benefits on many different sides from a technology, they are more likely to adopt it. On the other hand, when something is different enough from the existing technology base that it changes many assumptions simultaneously, it becomes hard for people to think about it, as it is hard for people to imagine the consequences of large scale climate change. I think that has been a major factor in people not coming to grips with such issues. One sees this pattern in many areas: not just in the marketplace, but also in the intellectual world where people have an accumulation of intellectual capital and concerns with its obsolescence.

Senator Gore. Yes. Ironically, as some have noted in the past, one of the reasons why Japan was able to move more quickly to the introduction of those technologies considered new in the 1950's and 1960's was that they encountered less inertia due to the level of destruction following the war there as compared to here.

Any other comments before I move on to the next?

Dr. Drexler, the technology you described in your testimony is actually referred to, is it not, Dr. Banks, in your report on critical technologies. How would you evaluate the relative significance of this technology?

Dr. Banks (Director, Program on Technology and the Environment, World Resources Institute). Well, it certainly is in our list. What I think is also significant is that our researchers looked at comparable lists on environmentally critical technologies and found this technology as a prominent item in the lists of other nations surveyed.

For the reasons that Dr. Drexler mentioned, this technology is now at a stage that we call a precompetitive stage where it still can benefit from further development which would have a wide scale of applications to an array of industrial uses, it is quite promising. It certainly meets the bill that we have talked about throughout our discussion. . . .

Senator Gore. How far off is this stuff, Dr. Drexler? Suppose that molecular nanotechnology got the kind of Federal and private support that biotechnology got over the last 10 years, what kind of advances would you expect to see by the year 2010, for example?

Dr. Drexler. That kind of question is one of the hardest to answer in this area. I know how to do calculations of the behavior of molecular machinery, but I do not know how to do calculations of the rate of progress of a research program, where there is a whole series of challenges to be surmounted.

In answer to that, what I have recently said is that I think we are 1 to 2 years away from a fundamental advance in capabilities in this area; namely, the ability to position individual molecules accurately, to get positional control of chemical synthesis, finally giving chemists the equivalent of a hand with which to put parts in place.

That will be a fundamental change. Organic synthesis has been going on for over a century now, without that kind of tool. With it, I expect to see much more rapid progress.

Senator Gore. What would that hand consist of? How do you actually move molecules?

Dr. Drexler. In laboratories today, there is an instrument called the atomic force microscope, which is sold commercially by a number of companies. It can position a tip near a surface to an accuracy of less than a 10th of an atomic diameter.

What is needed to turn that into a molecular manipulator, into something that can use molecules as building blocks--very far from large-scale environmental applications but a key step on the development pathway--is some kind of a gripper, a device with the function of a hand attached to that tip. Certain protein molecules can serve that function. What the instrument would look like is a $100,000 AFM, perhaps from Digital Instruments in Santa Barbara, with some molecular modifications on the tip.

Senator Gore. What we have seen now with that famous picture of the letters spelled with molecules, that is accomplished by using the tip to just sort of nudge them to where you want them? Is that basically it?

Dr. Drexler. Yes.

Senator Gore. What you are talking about is a quantum advance, when you can actually take hold of them, and place them more precisely in less time.

Dr. Drexler. Yes. The instrument used for the IBM work was actually a scanning tunneling microscope working at very low temperatures. There are a number of differences, but it was essentially a nudging process. This would be essentially a gripping and placing process.

Senator Gore. All right.

Dr. Drexler. To answer the question regarding timespan, it seems that a 5-year development cycle with that instrument could get you to another plateau of capability; another 5-year development from that could get you a long way. I commonly answer that 15 years would not be surprising for major, large-scale applications.

Senator Gore. That is very interesting. I know we will be hearing a lot more about it. . . . Can the effort [in technology development] in Japan and Germany help them become even more competitive? Is this as serious as I think it is? Are we really missing a beat by not keeping up with this?. . .

Dr. Drexler. Yes. With respect to a comparison of interest and directions in the United States and in Japan, I was struck by some material in the "Backs to the Future" report here.

If I look at the OSTP's list of critical technologies, the one that jumps out at me as being most nearly a description of the directions I think are important is micro-and nano-fabrication. . . . Combining micro and nano in this entry suggests that the primary focus is on the etching-based lithographic technologies that you so properly distinguished earlier.

Looking at the Council on Competitiveness list, the main one that jumps out at me is chemical synthesis, but that is extremely broad and, again, has been underway for a century.

On the MITI list, there are a whole set of points, each of which strikes me, just reading the words, as a better description of something that is an enabling technology.

They include: molecular functioning materials, biomimicking materials, protein alignment technology, precision molecular alignment technology, and atomic level precision manipulation technology. The last one hits the nail right on the head.

Senator Gore. So, there is just a higher level of clarity even in the basic description of what they are doing, and that is obvious to you just looking at the list?

Dr. Drexler. Yes.

Dr. Banks. And it is reflected, again, when one looks at the degree of effort and the sustained support and the seriousness. We have seen that throughout.

Senator Gore. Dr. Heaton, do you want to add something?

Dr. Heaton. Yes. There is also a much higher level of consensus on the issue in Japan. I was just in Japan in May and talked to about 40 or 50 people on this general issue, and one of the amazing things when you talk to 40 and 50 people in Japan is you get the same answer 40 or 50 times.

It is absolutely clear that the Japanese nation as a whole believes in the environmental imperative. Indeed, over the next century, the Japanese have a 100-year plan, which sounds almost ludicrous to us, but they also have a 2-year plan, and there is some consistency between the two.

I think it is also important to note, as someone has already, that MITI has very much taken over this initiative, not exactly taken it away from the Environment Agency, because indeed there are still very strong regulations, but the consistency between the environment and economic competitiveness is reflected in the fact that MITI has become the lead agency. So, I think that is an important consensus.

Senator Gore. I cannot remember a panel that I have found more interesting and I cannot remember a time when I have had a bigger stack of questions that I really want to ask and hear you respond to but, as usual, we have a limit on the amount of time that is available, and we have another panel to go after this one. . . .

I really think this has been one of the most interesting hearings that I have been able to participate in a long time, and I am grateful to all the witnesses who have appeared here today. They have provided a lot of useful information.

I look forward to working with you in the future as we move forward in this area. Again, very soon we will be introducing this legislation based on the hearing.

I want to thank our witnesses for being here today. This has been a very exciting, interesting hearing--one that gives us hope that with a concerted effort we can find and apply new technologies to solve many of the environmental problems we face.

In the past year, I have chaired more than 10 hearings on global environmental problems, and quite frankly, the picture can look pretty bleak. Carbon dioxide concentrations keep going up and up; stratospheric ozone levels keep dropping to historic lows. Our oceans, particularly near-shore are becoming more and more polluted. Millions of species are going extinct as we destroy their habitat. The news is not good.

What we have heard today is that there may be new technologies that can alleviate some of these problems--if we find the resources and political will to make the long-term investment needed to develop them and if we work together nationally and internationally to deploy them.

The complete hearing transcript (ISBN 0-16-039898-3) can be ordered from the U.S. Government Printing Office at 202-783-3238, or by sending $3 to Foresight Institute, PO Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306, USA.

Foresight Update 15 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5 | Page6

From Foresight Update 15, originally published 15 February 1993.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 15 to html for this web page.