We're 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. Studies 1 and 2 are concerned with fundamental theory, studies 3 through 6 with potential capabilities of molecular manufacturing (MM) technologies, and studies 7 through 12 with the requirements of developing an effective MM technology.
Today we're at the halfway mark with study #15: "What will the products cost?"
How many dollars per feature? Per kilogram? These questions will be answered for products of diamondoid systems based on the Phoenix nanofactory design. (Note: If the manufacturing system can duplicate itself completely, the cost may drop by orders of magnitude.)
Subquestion A: How much will environmental maintenance cost? Labor? Raw materials? Energy? Waste disposal?
Preliminary answer: The reference nanofactory is designed to operate in a shirtsleeve environment, with access to less than a megawatt of energy and comparable cooling capacity. Labor is negligible. Raw materials are likely to be cheap chemicals, though purification may add somewhat to the cost. (Some filtration/molecular sorting is inherent in the chemical uptake mechanism.) Energy (in a very primitive, inefficient design, the Phoenix nanofactory) is perhaps $20/kg at today's rates (note that one early product of the nanofactory system could be very cheap solar cells). The waste should be highly pure, small organic molecules, at the worst requiring incineration.
Subquestion B: How much will post-processing cost?
Preliminary answer: Nothing.
Subquestion C: How much will product design cost?
Preliminary answer: That depends largely on the functionality of the product. As a first estimate, the cost of most products will be dominated by the cost of software engineering to implement the product's functions.
Subquestion D: How much will the non-autoproduced components of the system cost (amortized)?
Preliminary answer: All components can be autoproduced.
Subquestion E: How much will the autoproduced components of the system cost (amortized)?
Preliminary answer: Nanofactories will probably be limited by policy rather than utility, so the degree of use can't be estimated. But they should be good for at least several trillion US$ worth of product per year, and the development cost probably won't go above $20 billion (and could be much less), so development cost should contribute pennies on the dollar of value.
Subquestion F: What will be the total product cost, per kilogram and per feature?
Preliminary answer: A primitive design may cost $10-100 per kg, based on costs for energy (as estimated in the Phoenix nanofactory paper) and highly pure chemicals. However, the Phoenix design is deliberately crude: a lower bound, not a best-guess estimate. With the use of more efficient mill-type mechanosynthesis, and the use of nano-constructed filters/purifiers, cost may drop to pennies per kg. Per feature: Since fabrication is automated and bottom-up, details don't cost any extra. One kg of product can include 10^20 features; cost per feature is negligible. Note that the superior material properties of diamond should allow products to be orders of magnitude lighter than metal, plastic, or even carbon-fiber versions; most large human-scale products will be inflatable and will require tiny fractions of a gram per cubic centimeter to maintain their shape.
Provisional conclusion: Product cost will be highly competitive with current high-tech products: not just semiconductors, but entire telephones, computer monitors, and aerospace hardware. Present calculations indicate it will be competitive even with cheap materials in structural applications ($/strength, though perhaps not $/mass).
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.