Progress Toward Advanced Nanotechnology
E-drexler.com explores a line of technological development that begins with current laboratory capabilities for molecular engineering and extends along an incremental path toward the transformative technologies of high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing.
This line of development and its objectives are important in areas that range from choices in science education and nanotechnology research to global problems on the largest scales, including the collision of economic development with global resource and environmental constraints.
“Revolutionizing the Future of Technology” (on the AAAS EurekAlert website) provides the best brief, general introduction to the concept of productive nanosystems. The best brief introduction to the underlying physical principles is “Productive Nanosystems: the physics of molecular fabrication” [pdf], from the Institute of Physics journal Physics Education. The foundational book, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, presents a a detailed technical analysis of the physical principles and one potential implementation architecture for high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing systems.
For an authoritative debunking of the old propaganda on this topic — and a call for focused research — see the U.S. National Academies report on molecular manufacturing, and beyond this, the Battelle/National Labs report, Productive Nanosystems: A Technology Roadmap.
For updates on research progress perspectives on the field, see my blog, Metamodern.com, including:
A broad-based, multidisciplinary exploration of paths to molecular manufacturing and advanced nanotechnology-based products, the Roadmap addresses how current laboratory techniques can be extended, step by step, toward increasingly advanced products and capabilities.
The Roadmap project was led by the Battelle Memorial Institute, the manager of U.S. National Laboratories that include Pacific Northwest, Oak Ridge, and Brookhaven; these labs hosted several Roadmap workshops and provided many of the participating scientists and engineers.
U.S. National Academies Report on Molecular Manufacturing
Federal review calls for funding experimental research
The National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies reviewed the concept and analysis of high-throughput molecular manufacturing and reported its findings in conjunction with its triennial review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The report cites the physics-based analysis in Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, and calls for experimental research directed toward molecular manufacturing, including both demonstations of principle and exploration of development paths.
Nanofactories: The Movie
“Productive Nanosystems: From molecules to superproducts” starts at the human scale, then zooms through a magnification factor of a billion to follow molecules as they are sorted, bound, transformed, and joined to form larger and larger components of a billion-processor laptop computer.
This is the the first visualizaton of molecular manufacturing that gets the basics right: the vast range of scales, the factory-style organization of the productive machinery, and the physical nature of the processes involved in binding, transforming, and combining molecules to make successively larger components. It’s far from a blueprint, but it depicts a realistic system architecture that is generally in line with the analysis in Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. For example, although the factory equipment is nanoscale in size, it is qualitatively familiar: transport and processing operations are implemented by hard automation and pick-and-place machines, not by the atom-juggling nanobots of popular mythology.
John Burch of LizardFire Studios produced the video and did much of the mechanical design. I advised John, did the artwork for the exponential zoom, and worked with Dr. Damian Allis on the design and quantum-chemistry based analysis of the molecular transformations shown in the first nanoscale scene.
The video is available as a high-resolution download
[video, 94 MB],
or can be seen here, on YouTube:
Available on E-drexler.com: Sample chapters, glossary, and extended Table of Contents from the physics-based text on molecular manufacturing, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation.
With recent translations: Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, now in html with links to Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Italian, French, and Chinese translations (in print and on the web).
Also available as a WOWIO e-book, Engines of Creation 2.0. This is a 20th anniversary edition that combines the original text with a set of background readings and updated comments by the author.
Beware of the Stroboscopic Illusion!
Every video that shows
nanomachines vibrating like this
is misleading in one
This video (and others like it) shows the molecular dynamics of a stiff, covalent structure of the sort that advanced nanofabrication methods will make feasible. Simulations like these are based on standard molecular mechanics models used in computational chemistry, and the dynamics is surprisingly realistic because the behavior of stiff structures like these is insensitive to inaccuracies in the underlying physical models.
The standard video outputs, however, are deeply misleading in one crucial respect: The stroboscopic illusion presents the false appearance that the speeds of mechanical and thermal motions are similar. If this were so, the coupling between mechanical and thermal motions would be strong and the dynamical friction would be enormous. In reality, mechanical motions under the intended operating conditions would be on the order of 1/1000 as fast as thermal motions, and atoms at sliding surfaces would see what amounts to a time-averaged potential energy in interactions across interfaces, and as a consequence, coupling of mechanical motion to thermal modes is small. Computational modeling shows that dynamical friction in well-designed systems can be extraordinarily low.
The following video makes all this marvelously clear:
By the way, this video actually shows dynamics at a simulated temperature somewhat below 300 K; motion amplitudes at 300 K would be about 20% larger, making the illustrated effect more vivid.
The NanoEngineer-1 Gallery has a collection of molecular dynamics simulations of molecular machines.
Early-generation productive nanosystems
Biology provides an existence proof for productive nanosystems, showing that they can produce an enormous quantity of atomically precise products cleanly and at low cost. Early generation productive nanosystems, enabled by current research in nanotechnologies and the molecular sciences, may follow the biological model, building small machines from self-assembled polymeric components. Design and analysis, however, show that longer-term capabilities can grow far beyond this biological model. The history of technology revolves around the use of tools to build better tools; early-generation productive nanosystems will open the door to advanced systems.
Advanced productive nanosystems
Advanced productive nanosystems (that is, molecular manufacturing systems) will enable the fabrication of large, complex products cleanly, efficiently, and at low cost. Among the feasible products of advanced productive nanosystems will be:
- desktop computers with a billion processors
- inexpensive, efficient solar energy systems
- medical devices able to destroy pathogens and repair tissues
- materials 100 times stronger than steel
- superior military systems
- additional molecular manufacturing systems (A desktop system is shown in this animation.)
Advanced systems provide a long-term objective, but even early-generation systems will have great practical and scientific value. Developing early-generation productive nanosystems is a practical objective today.
Today’s growing technology base
The last decade of progress in nanotechnologies and the molecular sciences provides a platform for developing productive nanosystems. Recent advances include techniques for error-free synthesis of long DNA strands [PDF, 240 KB], for design and synthesis of intricate, self-assembling DNA structures, for routine design and production of atomically precise, nanometer-scale polymeric objects, and for synthesis of a host of atomically precise nanoscale particles and fibers. Together, these form a basis for engineering self-assembled composite structures in which biopolymers provide atomically precise “glue” for other components.
Changing the narrative in the U.S.
In the United States, misunderstandings and funding-driven politics have delayed progress toward advanced nanotechnology, but this problem has greatly lessened. A National Research Council study (see news above) has evaluated molecular manufacturing systems as an objective and called for funding experimental work. Both the evaluation and the call for funding are firsts within the U.S. federal government. The release of the Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems, the result of a project led by the Battelle Memorial Institute with participation by researchers from its 5 U.S. National Labs, marks another milestone.