Over the last two weeks, we've been reviewing CRN's list of thirty essential studies that must be performed before we can have an adequate understanding of the potential societal impacts of nanotechnology.
Suggested studies 1 and 2 are concerned with the fundamental theory behind molecular nanotechnology manufacturing, studies 3 through 6 with potential capabilities of molecular manufacturing technologies, and studies 7 through 12 are intended to explore the requirements of developing an effective molecular manufacturing technology.
Studies 13 through 16 deal with product performance and suggest metrics for manufacturing and product capability. These studies should be run for each plausible molecular manufacturing technology. Preliminary answers to all subquestions are for diamondoid systems based on the Phoenix nanofactory design.
Let's look at recommended study #13: "What is the probable capability of the manufacturing system?"
Subquestion A: Does the system require human supervision or intervention while operating?
Preliminary answer: No. The (calculated) extremely high reliability of mechanosynthesis should allow completely autonomous operation; see Drexler, Nanosystems. Convergent assembly can use very simple robotics. With a reasonably low error rate in each fabrication unit permitting a reasonably low degree of unit-level redundancy, the nanofactory can take units offline permanently at any failure, and so would not need repair.
Subquestion B: How many features per second (complexity) will the system produce?
Preliminary answer: Each fabrication unit might produce 1,000 to 10,000 features per second: 10 to 100 atoms per feature, 100,000 atoms placed per unit per second. A less primitive design might place a million or more atoms per second. Each unit would be independently addressable with any of several thousand or million program streams. Basically, the product complexity is limited by the information that can be downloaded into the factory over a fast network in the few-hour fabrication time. This could easily amount to several terabytes—far more complexity than would be needed for most products. (For comparison, human DNA is several gigabytes.)
Subquestion C: What error rate will be built into the product components?
Preliminary answer: With primitive mechanochemical hardware, fewer than 1 in 10^8 atoms should be out of place. Better designs should be able to achieve 1 in 10^15. At this point, damage from environmental radiation becomes a bigger concern.
Subquestion D: How many grams per hour will the system produce?
Preliminary answer: A small-scale manufacturing system with no redundancy and external computer control might fabricate its mass in several hours. Scaled to tabletop size, it could take the better part of a day, but might be much quicker with more advanced designs. A single box massing a few kg could produce ~1 kg/hr in the reference design.
Subquestion E: What raw materials will the system require?
Preliminary answer: Some small carbon-rich molecule, not yet specified.
Subquestion F: What waste will it produce?
Preliminary answer: Not yet specified. Ideally it would produce harmless or useful molecules such as water and hydrocarbons. The reference design also uses ~250 kWh/kg energy.
Provisional conclusion: The reference design would be easy and cheap to use, producing its mass in probably less than a day. Its products could be quite complex—limited by design capabilities rather than limitations inherent in the nanofactory architecture.
Our initial basic findings (preliminary answers and provisional conclusions) for all thirty studies should be verified as rapidly as possible. Because our understanding points to a crisis, a parallel process of conducting these studies is strongly preferred.
We are actively looking for researchers who have an interest in performing or assisting with this work. Please contact CRN Research Director Chris Phoenix if you would like more information or if you have comments on the proposed studies.