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Frequently Asked Questions - Molecular Manufacturing

1. What is molecular manufacturing?

Molecular manufacturing is the name given to a specific type of "bottom-up" construction technology. As its name implies, molecular manufacturing will be achieved when we are able to build things from the molecule up, and we will be able to rearrange matter with atomic precision. This technology does not yet exist; but once it does, we should have a thorough and inexpensive system for controlling of the structure of matter.

Other terms, such as molecular engineering or productive molecular nanosystems, are also often applied when describing this emerging technology.

The central thesis of nanotechnology is that almost any chemically stable structure that is not specifically disallowed by the laws of physics can in fact be built. The possibility of building things with atomic precision was first introduced by Richard Feynman in a famous after-dinner talk in 1959 when he said: "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom."

Scientists have recently gained the ability to observe and manipulate atoms directly, but this is only one small aspect of a growing array of techniques in nanoscale science and technology. The ability to make commercial products may yet be a few decades away. But theoretical and computational models indicate that molecular manufacturing systems are possible - that they do not violate existing physical law. These models also give us a feel for what a molecular manufacturing system might look like. Today, scientists are devising numerous tools and techniques that will be needed to transform nanotechnology from computer models into reality. While most remain in the realm of theory, there appears to be no fundamental barrier to their development.

2. How might this precise control be achieved?

In outline, molecular manufacturing will parallel conventional automated manufacturing. Both require systems for storing and moving parts, for putting them together, and for transporting finished products. Both require sensors and computers to orchestrate the process. The difference is that the parts in molecular manufacturing will be reactive molecules, while the required conveyor belts, robotic arms, and so forth will be measured in nanometers. A detailed technical analysis in the book Nanosystems shows that machine components of the required size, accuracy, and reliability are physically feasible.

3. Why would we develop molecular manufacturing?

Ignoring for the moment that scientists and engineers are a curious lot, always pushing the envelope of what can and cannot be done, precision has been mentioned as a benefit of molecular machines and is one of the keys to understanding why we would want to develop this technology.

In this application, precision means that there is a place for every atom and every atom is in its place. Schematics will be detailed, and there will be no unnecessary parts anywhere in the design. We will use machines of precision to create products of equal precision. With this precision, we should be able to recycle all of the waste products produced by the manufacturing processes and put them to good use elsewhere. Manufacturing will also become less expensive as a result.

Technology has never had this kind of precise control; all of our technologies today are bulk technologies. We take a lump of something and add or remove pieces until we're left with whatever object we were trying to create. We assemble our objects from parts, without regard to structure at the molecular level. Precise atomic-level fabrication has previously only been seen in the growth of crystals or in biological molecular machinery, like the ribosome, which assembles all the proteins in living creatures, or DNA, which carries the instructions for creating a living being. If we incorporate similar processes during our development of nanotechnology, we will begin to gain a degree of complexity and control over systems that previously only evolution and nature have had.

Additional benefits arise when we consider the size of devices that we will be able to create. Once we are working on the atomic scale, we can create machines that will go places about which we could once only dream. More information will be packed into smaller and smaller spaces, and we will be able to do much more with much less. Nanotechnology promises unprecedented and efficient control over our environment, but taking advantage of anticipated developments requires forethought and planning. This is a primary aspect of Foresight's mission, and we continue to explore the costs and the benefits of developing nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing.

4. How will molecular manufacturing improve our lives?

One of the first obvious benefits is the improvement in manufacturing techniques. We are taking familiar manufacturing systems and expanding them to develop precision on the atomic scale. This will give us greater understanding of the building of things, and greater flexibility in the types and quantity of things we may build. We will be able to expand our control of systems from the macro to the micro and beyond, while simultaneously reducing the cost associated with manufacturing products.

Some of the most dramatic changes are expected in the realm of medicine. Theorists envision creating machines that will be able to travel through the circulatory system, cleaning the arteries as they go; sending out troops to track down and destroy cancer cells and tumors; or repairing injured tissue at the site of the wound, even to the point of replacing missing limbs or damaged organs. The extent of medical repair systems is expected to be quite broad, with the cumulative impact being equally large. These prospects are described in the Nanomedicine book series.

Nanotechnology is expected to touch almost every aspect of our lives, right down to the water we drink and the air we breathe. Once we have the ability to capture, position, and change the configuration of a molecule, we should be able to create filtration systems that will scrub the toxins from the air or remove hazardous organisms from the water we drink. We should be able to begin the long process of cleaning up our environment.

Space will also open up to us in new ways. With the current cost of transporting payloads into space being so high (~$20,000/kg), little is being done to take advantage of space. Nanotechnology will help by allowing us to deliver more machines of smaller size and greater functionality into space, paving the way for solar system expansion. Some have suggested that application of medical nanosystems might even go so far as to allow us to adapt our bodies for survival in space or on other worlds. While this is certainly a long way off, it provides a glimpse of the thorough control that molecular manufacturing and advanced molecular nanosystems may provide.

Taking all of this into account, it is clear that molecular manufacturing should improve our lives in any area that would benefit from the development of better, faster, stronger, smaller, and cheaper systems.

More information is available on these topics:


Space Development

The Environment

5. What are the risks of developing molecular manufacturing?

Almost any technology can be abused, and nanotechnology will be no exception. Although nanotechnology is still in the early stages of development, Foresight has encouraged exploration of what dangers might arise if the resulting research were applied to destructive goals. We have developed several papers that explore the threats more concretely, including specific scenarios on the development of biological and chemical warfare and more:

Discussions on how to avoid the dangers of poor implementations of molecular manufacturing are often carried out on Foresight's discussion website Nanodot. Join us online to find out more from people actively working to develop the technology.

6. What precautions can we take to ensure safe development?

While molecular manufacturing will facilitate control over the structure of matter, we must ask ourselves who will control the technology itself? The chief danger may not be a devastating accident, but instead, an abuse of power. We live in a competitive world, and one that is accelerating toward the development of this set of capabilities.

This concern about control issues encourages us to argue against secrecy. Combating the dangers will be greatly aided if we all have access to information about progress in the laboratory. If we reduce the number of projects being developed in a military black box, we will probably increase the number of people working on molecular manufacturing. Having more people involved in the field will mean that we are better able to defend ourselves in an emergency. We might see increases in the number of additional projects working on medicine, manufacturing, and the environment. Openly focusing on projects that aid people should go a long way to ensure that information remains available to the public.

We must also remember that there are dangers from both accidents and deliberate misuse. Much can be done to prevent accidents through the promotion a consistent ethical system and a system of accountability for those who develop and employ new technology. Trust will remain a central issue as molecular manufacturing research comes closer to deployment in the commercial world.

There are those who propose that trust is in short supply and that development guidelines should take into account that there will always be subversive elements. In this case, steps can be taken to prevent the abuse of nanotechnology through the application of, say, exotic environments, whereby a machine will only operate under specific laboratory conditions; and if applied, a machine released into the "wild" would cease to function.

Irrespective of trust issues, there are also concerns that replication errors may arise. We must work toward the creation of systems that reproduce information with as few errors as possible, ideally with no errors. Some suggest that it is also a good idea to design systems to limit internal evolution.

These elements and more are discussed in the Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology, which were created to begin addressing the need for a coherent plan for developing nanotechnology in a safe way.

Further reading is available on the safe development of molecular nanotechnology as solutions are considered in following documents:

Most nanotechnological systems will have elements of computer technology. It would be a reasonable precaution to develop those systems so that they are internally secure. Two approaches have been suggested: the use of encryption techniques or other security measures. Information specific to security issues is available in these pages:

Given that the dangers of nanotechnology may be almost as broad as the benefits, it is Foresight's primary goal to ensure that these issues are discussed openly, so that we may develop deterrents or solutions before problems arise.

7. What progress is being made today in developing molecular manufacturing?

Scientists are working not just on the materials of the future, but also the tools that will allow us to use these ingredients to create products. Experimental work has already resulted in the production of molecular tweezers, a carbon nanotube transistor, and logic gates.

Theoretical work is progressing as well. James M. Tour of Rice University is working on the construction of a molecular computer. Researchers at Zyvex have proposed an Exponential Assembly Process that might improve the creation of assemblers and products, before they are even simulated in the lab. We have even seen researchers create an artificial muscle using nanotubes, which may have medical applications in the nearer term.

Follow progress on Nanodot or become a Basic Contributor member of Foresight and receive Foresight Update, which contains information on the latest developments.

8. How long will it take to develop molecular manufacturing?

We began our discussion with physics and chemistry and continued with the capture and placement of single atoms using new devices like the scanning tunneling microscope. Shortly thereafter, researchers were able to create the carbon nanotube, which is likely to become our primary structural element in the future. Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Smalley (Rice University) discussed the advances in carbon nanotube manipulation in his 1996 address: From Balls to Tubes to Ropes: New Materials from Carbon. Recent presentations at the Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology highlight that this development continues as we gain the ability to assemble the fibers into sheets and three-dimensional lattices. Dr. Carlo Montemagno (formerly of Cornell, now at UCLA) and his team of researchers have created the first molecular motor, and this gives us an inkling of some of the atom transport systems that may arise.

Computer systems continue to advance as well, with the development of faster, smaller, and cheaper systems that have greater capacity. Assuming that security systems also see improvement, then these should be applicable to molecular machines, once they are developed. These improvements will also impact our ability to model new molecular devices, and help stabilize design parameters before the machines are actually built.

Development in nanotechnology is expected to continue at an accelerating pace, given that funding for these types of research is increasingly available. While informed estimates range from 15 to 50 years, it seems clear that molecular manufacturing will arrive in the not-too-distant future. We recommend that you read Nanodot or become a Basic Contributor member of Foresight, entitling you to receive Foresight Update, which contains information on the latest developments.

9. Where is molecular manufacturing R&D being performed?

Much of the research now building toward molecular manufacturing is taking place in universities across the globe; however, commercial companies are beginning to emerge as the time horizon for the technology grows closer. One of the early entries into the race to build a molecular assembler and product assembly process is the Texas-based corporation, Zyvex Corp.

In 2000, the U.S. Government became interested in promoting the development of nanotechnology, and has created the billion-dollar National Nanotechnology Initiative. The work funded includes a mix of top-down and bottom-up projects, some of which are relevant to molecular manufacturing. The NNI website includes a list of industry participants as well.

10. How can I participate in or influence the molecular manufacturing revolution?

First, you'll want to become better informed by reading one or both of the books Engines of Creation and Unbounding the Future, both available free online or in paperback. More technical readers may also wish to review the books Nanosystems, the Nanomedicine series, and Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines.

Explore the rest of this website for further perspectives and newer information on molecular manufacturing. Track the news and join the discussion over at the Nanodot weblog. Try to attend the annual Foresight Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology.

Finally, consider joining Foresight as a Senior Associate, interact online, and if possible, attend the Foresight Vision Weekend. You won't find a group anywhere who has thought more about these issues and can give you better guidance on how to participate. We at Foresight look forward to hearing your views and helping you get involved. Welcome!