[ExI] Big nanotech: an unexpected future

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Oct 31 18:33:46 UTC 2013


Big nanotech: an unexpected future

How we deal with atomically precise manufacturing will reframe the future for
human life and global society

Manufacturing at the smallest scale could have global consequences.
Photograph: Corbis

In my initial post in this series, I asked, "What if nanotechnology could
deliver on its original promise, not only new, useful, nanoscale products,
but a new, transformative production technology able to displace industrial
production technologies and bring radical improvements in production cost,
scope, and resource efficiency?"

The potential implications are immense, not just for computer chips and other
nanotechnologies, but for issues on the scale of global development and
climate change. My first post outlined the nature of this technology,
atomically precise manufacturing (APM), comparing it with today's 3D printing
and digital nanoelectronics.

My second post placed APM-level technologies in the context of today's
million-atom atomically precise fabrication technologies and outlined the
direction of research, an open path, but by no means short, that leads to
larger atomically precise structures, a growing range of product materials
and a wider range of functional devices, culminating in the factory-in-a-box
technologies of APM.

Together, these provided an introduction to the modern view of APM-level
technologies. Here, I'd like to say a few words about the implications of
APM-level technologies for human life and global society.

Solving major global problems

A surprising range of global problems can be seen as problems of
manufacturing, not solvable by manufacturing alone, of course, but
transformed and made more tractable by better ways to make things. Global
material economic development is, fundamentally, a problem of making things
that serve human needs, whether these are power systems, medical supplies, or
consumer goods. Similarly, resource depletion is a problem involving the
materials needed to make things and the costs (both economic and
environmental) of producing and recycling those materials; better ways to
make things with frugal use of common materials could bypass mines and
restructure international trade.

And a switchover to renewable solar photovoltaic energy? This is a matter of
producing enough photovoltaic panels, packaged for low-cost deployment.
Getting the resulting energy to people? This is a matter of producing
electric power transmission infrastructure. Producing liquid fuels from
renewable energy? This is a matter of processing molecules (CO2 + H2O +
energy —> hydrocarbon fuels + oxygen), and atomically precise manufacturing
can provide the required energy and high-throughput catalytic mechanisms.

Even reversing the CO2 problem is, in the end, a problem of manufacturing, a
one that could be solved with enough energy and equipment for CO2 capture and
compression. Both expanding energy supplies and capturing CO2 are primarily
problems of producing the requisite devices, but on a daunting scale. The
project would require some 30 terawatt-years of non-carbon-based energy,
enormous when compared to the three terawatts of electric power produced by
the world today. To provide the necessary energy in the span of a decade
would require photovoltaic arrays covering about 1% of the area of the Sahara
desert – 100bn square metres would be enough. This would be too costly with
today's means of manufacture, but practical at some time in the future with
APM-level technologies.

These examples suggest that atomically precise manufacturing could not solve,
but could provide the means to solve problems that are beyond the reach of
industrial technologies. And the task of developing APM-level technologies is
itself a problem of manufacturing, a task that will require an incremental
climb up a ladder of production technologies that extends today's surprising
progress in atomically precise fabrication.

Raising new concerns

Every major advance in making things can have both beneficial and harmful
applications, and even beneficial applications have unintended (and often
unpredictable) consequences. It seems that APM-level technologies can lead to
problems of three main kinds:

• The potential manufacture of desirable products on a scale that, unless
moderated or managed, would cause deep economic disruption by collapsing
demand for many sorts of natural resources, labour, and conventional

• The potential manufacture of products that, unless forestalled by law or
regulation, could cause harm (for example, drugs, guns, and devices prone to
exploding or worse).

• Of special concern, the potential manufacture of weapons that, unless
forestalled by co-operative arms control, could lead to a risky and
unpredictable arms race: imagine rapidly deployable arsenals that include
millions of cruise missiles, each delivering up to millions of drones no
larger than wasps, able to disperse, communicate, wait, watch, and then act
when triggered. Or simply consider the prospect of efficient uranium isotope
separation equipment made as easily as a plastic gadget from a 3D printer.

These concerns all involve APM products, because APM production technologies
in themselves can by their very nature (and with a bit of sensible
regulation) be cleaner and safer than the technologies they replace. APM is a
particular kind of factory-in-a-box technology – no dispersed particles,
wandering bots, toxic materials, or anything gooey, but instead a machine
that resembles a printer. APM is a specific kind of technology but its
products, by contrast, can be extraordinarily diverse. Like the
nanotechnology used to build information systems, APM's products and
applications can be as different from one another as online games, drone
guidance systems, smartphones, and Wikipedia.

Asking the right questions

If there's anything to the concept of high-throughput atomically precise
manufacturing, then it's important to understand what it may mean for our
future. The way forward in understanding that these prospects starts with
asking the right questions.

The first question must be‚ "What is it?" in the most basic, physical sense,
because without this understanding, any conversation will immediately run off
the rails. I outlined the basic nature of the technology in my first post,
drawing parallels with digital systems, 3D printing and conventional
manufacturing. Digging deeper into this question involves exploring the
molecular physics and mechanical engineering of nanoscale systems of
particular kinds, systems that can be understood in terms of today's science,
yet are beyond the reach of today's technology. As I mentioned, there is some
institutional weight (the US National Academy of Sciences APM-feasibility
study, etc) behind the idea that the science and engineering of APM systems
makes sense.

With this picture in place, the next question is‚ "Can it be built?" The
answers to this depend on the timeframe: not today, because we don't yet have
the necessary toolkit. Yes, in the future, because the necessary toolkit can
be developed through further progress in atomically precise fabrication. Note
that this progress centres on the molecular sciences and often isn't labelled
as "nanotechnology".

A further layer of questions asks‚ "What can APM-based production enable?"
The answers here are uncomfortably broad: asking what APM systems can do with
materials is much like asking what computers can do with information.

The most important questions look one step further, asking‚ "What are the
potential consequences?" These questions involve the physics and engineering
of APM-enabled technologies, of course, but they centre on anticipated and
unanticipated human actions. Among these, the key questions will involve
potential societal agreements and regulatory regimes that seek ways to apply
APM-enabled technologies to solve human problems while minimising potential
misapplications and disruptive results.

These questions and answers, asked and discussed in a host of venues, will
reframe the potential future of 21st century material civilisation.
Timelines, applications and outcomes will depend on how well and how widely
APM-level technologies are understood and how we choose to manage them.

I find that asking these questions opens the door to a banquet of
indigestible truths, yet if the prospects are real, it's time to start
nibbling. And this means beginning to broaden our conversation about the
future to take account of new possibilities.

Eric Drexler, often called "the father of nanotechnology", is at the Oxford
Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, University of Oxford.
His most recent book is Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology
Will Change Civilization

The Oxford Martin School of Oxford University and the Research Center for
Sustainable Development of the China Academy of Social Sciences recently
released a report on atomically precise manufacturing, Nano-solutions for the
21st century. The report discusses the status and prospects for atomically
precise manufacturing (APM) together with some of its implications for
economic and international affairs.

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