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Big nanotech: towards post-industrial manufacturing
Monday, 14 October 2013 14:39
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?

What if we could raise the global material standard of living above that of today's richest nations, while reducing impacts on Earth's environment? What if we could manage a more rapid transition to zero net carbon emissions, and (yet more challenging) could afford to build the systems that would be required to capture, compress, and remove a trillion or so tons of industrial-era CO2 from the atmosphere?

The technology in question is high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing (APM), a prospect that will emerge from technologies that will emerge from progress in atomically precise fabrication – progress with ongoing and surprising achievements today.

More concretely, one can think of APM as 3D printing perfected: a factory-in-a-box technology based on what, by analogy with 3D printers, could be called "nanofabbers".

APM-based production technologies will bond molecules together to make larger and larger components, ultimately delivering products that range from computer chips to aircraft to photovoltaics and household goods. The principles of physics show that nanoscale machinery can direct bonding by guiding the motion of molecules (and then larger components), and the principles of engineering indicate that these nanoscale machines can and should resemble the machines found in factories today: built of gears and bearings, motors and conveyor belts – smaller, different in detail, and yet guiding similar motions in similar ways.


Why pay attention to a future technology?

Transformative economic and environmental prospects give reason to take a close look at APM-level technologies, and all the more so because there's reason to think the prospects are real.

For a suitably stodgy and weighty piece of evidence, in one of its many dust-gathering studies, the US National Academy of Sciences looked at the feasibility of APM and called for pursuing its development. For a document with less institutional weight but more technical detail, add to the stack the MIT doctoral dissertation (mine) that first explored the physics and engineering of APM. For another, add a technology roadmap for APM developed in conjunction with several of the US National Laboratories. (I mention these credentialed, technical documents to distinguish APM technologies from a clinging miasma of popularised mythologies – Star Trek replicators, nanomagicbots and the like.)

The potential of APM matters for our future because it is an aspect of the potential of 21st-century technologies. It's past time for a discussion of APM that begins with an understanding of what the technology is, its physical basis, and how it could transform the material basis of human civilisation.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about APM is this: that it can be understood today, both in outline and in sufficient scientific detail to fathom its basic capabilities. This understanding is based on exploratory engineering, a game in which the rules require shunning unknowns, relying only on known science and engineering principles, a game of exploring potential technologies that can be designed and analysed within those rules. In other words, the rules require that the numbers can be checked, as they have been.

In the mid-20th century, exploratory engineering established that liquid-fueled rockets could reach the moon. To achieve this required an immense amount of further, more detailed engineering, but the numbers left no room for doubt that the moon was within reach. Much the same is true today of APM.

If the basic physical facts are so well established, why has the concept of APM-level technology been controversial? This is also understandable, but the story involves a tangle of science and fiction linked with money, press coverage, Washington politics and sheer confusion. For now, however, I'd like to set the confusion aside and outline the concept itself.


What kind of technology?

An APM system amounts to a factory in a box, but a kind of factory with extraordinary capabilities. To understand the potential of this kind of factory, consider the following comparison: APM strongly parallels today's leading nanotechnology: the nanoelectronic technology that powers the information revolution. Today's nanotechnology of digital electronics uses intricate arrays of high-frequency, nanoscale electronic devices to move bits and bytes from place to place and put them together to make precise patterns of information – perhaps an image displayed on a tablet computer.

Tomorrow's nanotechnology of atomically precise manufacturing will use intricate arrays of high-frequency, nanoscale mechanical devices to move atoms and molecules from place to place and put them together to make precise patterns of matter – perhaps an actual, physical tablet computer.

Nanoelectronic information technologies can put a computer in a desktop box; Nanomechanical APM technologies can put a factory in a desktop box. Digital electronics provides a general-purpose technology in the world of information products; atomically precise manufacturing will provide a general-purpose technology in the world of physical products, somewhat like 3D printing, but able to do much, much more.

What does "general purpose" mean here? Consider the digital analogy again: patterns of bits and bytes can form a virtually infinite range of images made from a limited range of pixels; patterns of atoms and molecules can likewise form a virtually infinite range of physical products made from a large yet limited range of materials.

In 3D printing technology, fabbers cross over to making physical products, building with bits of material in place of pixels. APM-based production systems (nanofabbers?) will work with a wider range of materials and ultimate precision: the range of potential APM products includes not only devices like tablet computers with a billion processor cores and good battery life, but also lightweight ultrastrong structures for aircraft, engines for high-performance zero-emission vehicles, and rolls of solar photovoltaic cells flexible and tough enough use in resurfacing a road.


Questions and more questions…

Prospects for atomically precise manufacturing raise many questions, as I know from giving talks on the subject to both technical and general audiences. I've outlined answers to only the most basic questions above – questions that are directly linked to the physics and engineering of APM-based production. Here are some further and broader questions:

• What does APM have to do with the rest of nanotechnology?

• What is the state of relevant research, and what's next?

• When can we expect to see applications?

• What are the potential benefits and risks?

• What are the points of leverage today?

I'll explore some of these questions in later posts on this blog.


Eric Drexler, often called "the father of nanotechnology", is currently at Oxford with the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, where he completed his recent book, Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization

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