January 2009

Nanorevolution: Sooner rather than later

By Mike Treder

The "future shock" foreseen by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 bestseller has perhaps been less debilitating for most people than predicted, but even Toffler could not have envisioned the tidal wave of change that will hit us when nanofactories make the scene.

Imagine a world filled with billions of desktop-size, portable, non-polluting, cheap machines called nanofactories that manufacture almost anything in just a few hours. Today, such a device does not exist. However, before your neighbor pays off her mortgage, this technology could create the next Industrial Revolution ... or the world's worst nightmare.

Here is molecular nanotechnology (MNT). It is a step beyond most of today's nanotechnology research, which deals with exploring and exploiting the properties of materials at the nanoscale. MNT, by contrast, is about constructing shapes, machines, and products at the atomic level-putting them together molecule by molecule.

Unlike any machine previously built by humans, the nanofactory will assemble from the bottom up, constructed of precisely designed and placed molecules. You could say the nanofactory itself will be the first general-purpose product made by molecular nanotechnology.

The inner architecture of a nanofactory will be a stunning achievement, outside the realm of anything previously accomplished. Nanofactories will make use of billions of moving parts, each designed and precisely constructed to do a specific job.

Some of these parts will be macro scale, visible to the human eye. Most will be microscopic or even nanoscale, smaller than a human cell. An important feature of a nanofactory is all of these parts will fix in place. This is significant because it greatly simplifies development of the device.

Engineers will not have to figure out how to tell each little nanobot in a swarm where to go, or how to get there, and none of the parts can get lost or turn feral. Instead, the nanofactory uses assembly-line architecture. As such, it requires no new science, just basic mechanics.

The first step in building a nanofactory is building a fabricator. That is the name nanoengineers use for a tiny machine that is capable of grasping, manipulating, and placing individual molecules to make useful products-such as another fabricator. Once a basic fabricator is completed, it can begin the job of constructing a nanofactory. The blueprint will already be in place. However, until we have a working fabricator, we cannot have a nanofactory.

Building an fabricator is the ambitious goal of Zyvex, a Texas firm that bills itself as "the first molecular nanotechnology company." The company has gathered many leading minds in physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and computer programming to focus on the task.

So far this year, Zyvex has received nearly $25 million in funding as part of the Atomically Precise Manufacturing Consortium from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund.

How far are we from having a fabricator? Estimates range from five to 15 years.

Moreover, how long will it take from building a single fabricator to having a fully functional nanofactory? It could be decades, common wisdom says, before we will be able to manufacture finished consumer goods.

We at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology think the time from a single fabricator to a full-fledged nanofactory that creates low cost products is more like weeks or months.

And what will the first nanofactory build? Another one, and another one, and … each nanofactory will be able to duplicate itself in less than a day. A few months after the first basic fabricator is completed, every household in the world conceivably could have its own nanofactory. Imagine the implications!

This all adds up to a change that is sudden and shocking, and it could be extremely disruptive.

Molecular nanotechnology will influence all areas of society, and unless comprehensive international plans are developed, the multiplicity of cures could be worse than the ills, which they can resolve.


Mike Treder (email@crn.org) is executive director the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, a nonprofit research and policy group in New York.