Molecular manufacturing will be able to make a wide range of superior products, many with unprecedented abilities
With its ability to make a wide range of structures with atomic precision, molecular manufacturing will greatly expand the limits of technological possibility. It will make possible micron-scale computer CPUs efficient enough (operating power ~100 nanowatts) to let air-cooled desktop systems contain a billion processors. It will make possible materials about 100 times stronger than those in common use today, enabling large reductions in the mass of products (particularly aerospace products) and in raw materials consumption. Mechanical systems using efficient, nanoscale, DC electric motor-generators will be able to interconvert electrical and mechanical power with high power density (>1 GW/cm3). Systems combining nanoscale sensors, computers, and tools will bring surgical control to the molecular level, enabling the precise destruction of cancer cells and AIDS viruses. Molecular manufacturing systems can even be used to build more molecular manufacturing systems.
An advance of this scale will bring both enormous opportunities and the potential for enormous abuse and disruption. In the military sphere, the resulting capabilities are likely to prove decisive. Much of the reason for examining molecular manufacturing today is to enable better decisions about the future.
What is the basis for these expectations?
Computers: Recall that powerful processors can be built with fewer than 107 transistors, while a cubic micron contains 109 cubic nanometers, and can contain >1011 atoms. Analysis of a specific implementation technology (Nanosystems, Chapter 12) yields volume and power consumption number consistent with the statement above.
Strong materials: The statement above is equivalent to saying that molecular manufacturing will be able to build structures with the strength of high-quality graphite, diamond, or carbon nanotubes. These materials form under laboratory conditions when reactive carbon-containing species bond to (and transfer hydrogen to and from) surfaces. Molecular manufacturing systems can use analogous reactions, but using mechanical control to guide the carbon deposition process with atomic precision (Nanosystems, Section 8.6).
High power-density motor-generators: Recall that small mechanical devices can operate at high frequencies, resulting in high throughputs of (for example) charge on a per unit volume basis. Nanosystems, Section 11.7 describes a 100 nm scale, 10 V, 110 nA DC motor with performance in the range stated above. (Scaling laws also yield high throughput of materials.)
Destruction of pathogens and cancer cells: Molecular machine systems in nature demonstrate that devices capable of the required sorts of molecular-scale sensing and action are feasible. Molecular manufacturing will enable the construction of a wider range of devices, both imitating and extending natural systems. In particular, it will enable the use of programmable computers of sub-cellular size to evaluate sensor data and select targets.
Building more molecular manufacturing systems: The range of structures that can be built by mechanically guiding molecular assembly is extremely large, and includes structures that can mechanically guide molecular assembly. Molecular manufacturing systems need contain no parts of sorts that cannot be made and combined using molecular manufacturing.
Decisive military capabilities: Expected advances in computation, materials, and production cost seem large enough to enable developments that can overwhelm forces based on previous technologies.