Thanks to atomically precise manufacturing, we will soon have the power to produce radically more of what people want, and at a lower cost. The result will shake the very foundations of our economy and environment.
Already, scientists have constructed prototypes for circuit boards built of millions of precisely arranged atoms. The advent of this kind of atomic precision promises to change the way we make things—cleanly, inexpensively, and on a global scale. It allows us to imagine a world where solar arrays cost no more than cardboard and aluminum foil, and laptops cost about the same.
A provocative tour of cutting edge science and its implications by the field’s founder and master, Radical Abundance offers a mind-expanding vision of a world hurtling toward an unexpected future.
Nanotechnology (sometimes shortened to (“nanotech”) is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. The earliest, widespread description of nanotechnology referred to the particular technological goal of precisely manipulating atoms and molecules for fabrication of macroscale products, also now referred to as molecular nanotechnology.
The term “nanotechnology” has been bandied about so much over the last few decades that even the researcher who popularized the term is the first to point out that it’s lost its original meaning. Nanotech, or the manipulation of matter on atomic and molecular scales, is currently used to describe micro-scale technology in everything from space technology to biotech.
As such, nanotech has already changed the world. But the fruition of atomically precise manufacturing (APM) — nanotech’s next phase — promises to create such “radical abundance” that it will not only change industry but civilization itself.
At least that’s the view of Eric Drexler, considered by most to be the father of nanotechnology. An American engineer, technologist and author with three degrees from M.I.T., Drexler is currently at the “Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology” at Oxford University in the U.K.
Forbes.com questioned Drexler about points discussed in his forthcoming book, Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, due out in May.
Has nanotechnology, as most of the world currently understands it, been over-hyped? At the outset, “nanotechnology” essentially meant atomically precise manufacturing (APM). But by the time something called nanotechnology won large-scale funding a decade ago, the term sometimes meant APM, and sometimes meant something more like conventional materials science. But expecting to get APM-level technologies out of typical areas of materials science is like expecting to get a Swiss watch out of a cement mixer. [APM] progress has been in the molecular sciences. People looking to materials science for progress in APM have been setting themselves up to be blindsided, because some of the most important boostrapping technologies for APM are not labeled “nanotechnology.”
In “Radical Abundance,” you note that APM-level production technology will allow a box on a desktop “to manufacture an infinite range of products drawn from a digital library.” This almost sounds like magic. How would the atoms be arranged and manipulated to facilitate the manufacturing process?
An ordinary printer shows how digital information can be used to arrange small things — pixels — to make a virtually infinite range of images. By doing something similar with small bits of matter, and APM-level technologies can fabricate a virtually infinite range of products. 3D printing also illustrates this principle.
Imagine factory machinery putting small components together to make larger components and you have a good idea of how APM-based production can work. Down at the bottom, the parts are simple molecules from ordinary commercial materials in a can or a drum, somewhat like large ink cartridges. Simple molecules are atomically precise, so they make a good starting point for atomically precise manufacturing. This works if the factory machines themselves are atomically precise and guide molecular motions accurately enough, and physics shows that nanoscale machines can, in fact, do this.
Factories that use very small machines can be very compact, just a few times larger than what they produce. A desktop-scale machine could manufacture a tablet computer or a roll of solar photovoltaic cells.
What about the cost-effectiveness of APM? Cost-effectiveness depends on both production cost and product value. APM products can have very high performance and value because atomically precise materials based on carbon nanotubes can be extremely strong and lightweight, because atomically precise computer devices can far outperform today’s nanoscale electronics, and so on through a range of other examples.
Production costs can be low because the raw materials are inexpensive and the processing can go straight from raw materials to final products using highly productive machinery. The key insight here is that nanoscale mechanical devices can move and act almost exactly like larger machines, but moving at much higher frequencies. This is a consequence of physical scaling laws of the kind that [physicist] Richard Feynman described almost 50 years ago, and it enables high throughput. So the prospect is a technology that combines high performance with low cost, typically by large factors.
To be an exploratory engineer means applying conservative engineering principles — margins of safety, redundant options, and so on — and design analysis based on well-established, textbook-quality scientific knowledge. This is the only way to draw reliable conclusions about what can be accomplished.
The place to look for new and surprising results is in the range of technologies that are beyond reach of current fabrication technologies. APM-level technologies are in this range. We can see paths forward toward these technologies — using today’s molecular tools to step by step build better tools. But a clear view isn’t the same as a short path. APM-level technologies are not around the corner.
Would APM make revolutionary inroads into biotech — specifically, in developing nano-machines that could unclog arteries; reverse brain damage in stroke victims; or even manufacture a truly robust artificial heart? APM is very different from biotechnology (think of the difference between a car and a horse). But we already see nanoscale atomically precise devices being used to read and synthesize DNA, devices borrowed from biological molecular machinery. Nanoscale atomically precise technologies like these can be made much faster and more efficient. Nanomedicine is already researching nanoscale functional particles that can circulate in the body and target cancer cells. Technologies of this kind have enormous room for improvement, and advances in atomically precise fabrication will be the key. The body relies on atomically precise devices to do its work, and atomically precise devices are the best way to accomplish precise medical interventions at the molecular level.
Would APM lower the cost of access to outer space? The main barrier to space activity today is cost. With the ability to make materials tens of times stronger and lighter than aluminum, and at a low cost per kilogram, access to space becomes far more practical. The difficulties of producing high-performance, low-defect, high-reliability systems also decline sharply with atomically precise manufacturing.
In what fields would APM cause the most pronounced economic disruption and the collapse of global supply chains to more local chains? The digital revolution had far-reaching effects on information industries. APM-based production promises to have similarly far-reaching effects, but transposed into the world of physical products. In thinking about implications for international trade and economic organization, three aspects should be kept in mind: a shift from scarce to common raw materials, a shift from long supply chains to more direct paths from raw materials to finished products, and a shift toward flexible, localized manufacturing based on production systems with capabilities that are comparable on-demand printing. This is enough to at least suggest the scope of the changes to expect from a mature form of APM-based production — which again is a clear prospect but emphatically not around the corner.
Would APM help make war obsolete? I don’t see that anything will make war obsolete, but the prospect of APM-level technologies changes national interests in two major ways:
By deeply reducing the demand for scarce resources — including petroleum — APM technologies will reduce the motivations for geopolitical struggles for what are now considered strategic resources.
Secondly, by making calculations of future military power radically uncertain, the prospect of these technologies gives good reason to examine approaches to cooperative development merged with confidence-building mutual transparency among major powers. Changes in national interests will call for developing [military] contingency plans premised on the emergence of these technologies.
Atomically Precise Manufacturing would make steel works such as this one obsolete. (Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)
When will we actually see the onset of the APM revolution? The paths forward require further advances in atomically precise fabrication, an area that began with organic chemistry more than a century ago and continues to make great strides. A sharper engineering focus will bring faster progress and further rewards, just as progress in atomically precise fabrication has brought rewards since the beginning in science, industry, and medicine.
Although advanced objectives like full-scale APM stand beyond a normal business R&D investment horizon, incremental steps in key technologies are steadily emerging. But we need a more focused program of design, analysis, research, and development.
Do all roads lead to APM? Thus, is some form of APM likely to be ubiquitous among intelligent civilizations in the galaxy, if of course such civilizations exist? There’s no substitute for atomic precision because there’s no substitute for precisely controlling the structure of matter. The only known way to do this is by guiding the motion of molecules to put them in place, according to plan, by means of directed bonding — in other words, by some form of atomically precise manufacturing. Since there are many ways to develop these technologies, I’d say that all roads forward do indeed lead to APM.
Imagine that there exists a two-dimensional (single-layer) crystal that is made of a commonly available element, is stronger than steel yet lighter weight and flexible, displays ballistic electron mobility (for comparison, two orders of magnitude greater mobility than silicon, at room temperature), and is sufficiently optically active to see with the naked eye (though far more practically, using an optical microscope). Prospective applications include flexible, high-speed electronic devices and new composite materials for aircraft.
Would this sound like a potentially world-changing substance worthy of scientific attention and funding?
That substance is graphene, a single layer of graphite with hexagonally arranged carbon atoms (visualized as chicken wire).
Now imagine that the mechanical properties of this substance aren’t measured yet, as was the case for graphene before 2009. Imagine further that there is no way to grow or isolate the single-layer crystals in their free state, as was the case for graphene before 2004. Stepping back in time yet further, imagine that the theoretical work predicting massless charge carrier behavior hasn’t been carried out yet, as was the case for graphene before 1984.
Peeling back these milestones, we can see that if the scientific question being asked is “What can be realized from here?” then the graphene timeline played out characteristically, with major advancements coming primarily from opportunity-based research. In other words, over 50+ years, from the initial theoretical work on graphene in 1947 until stable monolayers were achieved in 2004, there was limited vision of what end-goals might be achievable and limited drive to get there.
What happens when a different question is asked, specifically “What can be realized according to physical law?” This is the key premise of the exploratory engineering approach, a methodology proposed by Eric Drexler for assessing the capabilities of future technologies. He points out, for example, that the principles of space flight had been worked out long before science and industry advanced enough to get to actual launch.
For initial space flight development, the answers to the two questions above were dramatically different: what could be done in practice was far behind what had been established as theoretically possible, and there was no defined path between them. By identifying what was achievable according to physical law, the longer-term goal of space flight entered the consciousness of physicists, engineers, and politicians, bringing great minds and great resources to the challenge.
With the benefit of similarly future-focused knowledge, perhaps graphene might have received far more attention far sooner. Consider this: the groundbreaking experimental work that sparked the field as we know it today was the discovery that single-layer graphene could be extracted from a piece of graphite by (essentially) pressing cellophane tape against it and peeling it away. In other words, a decades-long roadblock to achievements in graphene research was not a matter of inadequate supporting technology but one of limited scientific attention.
Here graphene serves as a useful illustration of how progress could potentially be hindered when opportunity-based research is relied upon exclusively. Scientific advancement could benefit significantly from deliberate, exploratory engineering. Perhaps there are numerous other ‘graphenes’ right now, going unnoticed or under-prioritized, because we are failing to ask: what can be realized according to physical law?