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« Surprising Roots of Terrorism | Main | Stairway to Heaven »

July 04, 2004


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What would a vehicle using nanotechnology with gasoline have in fuel efficiency compared to a normal car? I mean I'm sure a nanotech vehicle would have all kinds of nice advances like solar powered cars or fuel cells. but what would it do to an existing cars efficiency to retrofit it ? I hate my brothers 96 explorer because it uses several dollars a day in gas.

jim moore

I think it will be easier to replace your car rather than retrofit it. You see most of the increase in energy efficiency comes from three areas : weight reduction, reduced air resistance, and regenerative braking.
Using diamond as your major building material allows you too eliminate 90-99% of the weight of vehicle. With MM this is the weight ranking for a full vehicle : 1 passengers; 2 energy storage system (chemical fuel or nano-tech battery); 3 everything else combined. MM should also allow you to change the shape of vehicle so as to minimize the air resistance. And by using very efficient electrostatic motors/ generators to power the vehicle you can avoid losing energy when you slow down by reabsorbing the energy rather than heating up your break pads.

To full exploit MM in a design for a personal transportation device (or a transportation system) you need to throw out the car - truck - roadway model. And when you start to think through the economic and social implications of MM I believe that the most common reason people will be traveling will be recreation.

When you put all of this together you realize that personal vehicle designs will be dominated fashion, and whimsy. We should see things like people riding around in what look kind of like dinosaurs or giant insects, or slugs, or flying around in giant dragon flies or whale shaped active blimps.

What kind of vacation-mobile would you want to travel in?

Brett Bellmore

In as much as I work in the automotive industry, I can speak with at least some authority on the subject:

1. Aerodynamics of cars are not currently constrained by manufacturing techniques, but instead by the need to maintain interior volume; The ideal aerodynamic shape is a needle, but of course, needles don't have a lot of luggage space... That's why cars look so similar to each other today; The various constraints are forcing them to converge on the same solutions for particular roles.

2. There are serious limits on how light you can make a car, if you want to be able to drive it in a cross-wind, or at substantial speed. Traction being a function of vehicle weight, while drag, even with a good shape, is a function of the vehcle's volume, which has a lower limit. Below a density not too much lower than current vehicles, you'd be blown off the road by cross-winds, and have a sad top speed where your traction equaled your air resistance.

3. Safety... Crush zones require a certain minimal amount of space in the car, no matter what you're making it out off. So the vehicles aren't going to be too much smaller. There's a great deal of potential, however, for exotic safety features, like filling the car interior with utility fog which goes solid during collisions, or collision prediction and premptive deployment of exterior energy aborbing mechanisms, (Airbags.) or even braking rockets.

4. Engine efficiency. HERE is the real potential for gain, as even good IC engines don't reach 30% efficiency, then there are losses in the transmission, and other parts of the drive train.

I would expect a nanotech car to have essentially all the moving parts isolated in the wheel wells, make extensive use of regenerative braking and smart suspensions, and the light body would allow most of the empty mass of the car to be high energy density battery, for extended range. All wheel drive, and variable suspension height would be standard, and the tread pattern could even be variable, adapting to road conditions. And, yeah, it probably would be able to fold up for smaller storage when you weren't in it, though it would still be too heavy to carry away like George Jetson's car.

And, of course, in most places it would steer itself...


Of course, there are ways to generate a downforce, other than weight. Today's technology does it with a spoiler. A more advanced possibility is to have air intake around/under the car and exhaust it upwards. You could even do this adaptively based on wind/lateral acceleration, and road imperfections. This will smooth out the ride and should also enable you to corner at > 1 g.

Another approach is super-sticky tires with tendrils which dig into the texture of the road. Somewhat like an insect's feet.

And if you think about it, why use tires when you can have the entire underside be an adaptive "tire". This would have 100x more surface area and therefore 100x potential traction.

All of these will work better with less mass, re-inforcing the less mass/less weight design direction.

Mr. Farlops

Never mind ways to improve energy efficiency and safety, all I want is a car that's smart enough to drive itself. I'd love it if we never had to touch the wheel again.

Brett Bellmore

All of those options might work, but they're all active options, which consume power. Kinda contrary to the goal of high energy efficiency, no?

Where light weight would really be advantageous, would be in something like the Moller sky car. Which has the advantage of not requiring roads.

jim moore


That is what I am saying, to really take advantage of MM in the design of transportation devices you need to get away from the car-truck-roadway system.

I just saw Spiderman II, it would be hilarious, if the personal transportation device of the future would be Doc Oc arms. I know that I want a set.

Mike Treder, CRN

Why are we so concerned about wheels and traction? If diamondoid nanotech will enable a vehicle that is >90% lighter than today's, then a hovercraft is a much smarter design. Radar-equipped, of course, for collision avoidance.

Tom Craver

I don't think we should consider any element of nanotech in isolation. If you take concerns about nanotech terrorism and nano-weapon proliferation into account, the chances of fully capable nanofactories in every home are slim - assuming we don't fall into anarchy.

I doubt that nanotech will be suppressed. Those in charge would probably limit self-replication facilities to a few locations and ship more specialized nanofactories to other nations pretty much for free - the small cost of maintaining hegemony over the other nations to keep them from developing their own self-replicating nanotech. There'll likely be a hierarchy of capabilities, getting less restricted as they get less capable.

People may have the ability to construct just about anything out of atomically precise specialized nanoblocks on the order of 100nm on a side - but not the ability to make those nanoblocks. There will be things that require higher performance materials that can't be produced out of nanoblocks - e.g. the combustion chamber of an internal combustion engine or jet turbine blades, which will require specialized and licensed nanofactories. Food may be sold as small packets to which a home food preparation unit adds water and restructures according to built-in directions, to produce appetizing meals.

In short, due to security concerns, there may still be the basis for a centralized economy distributing a wide variety of specialized nanoblocks and high performance parts and likely providing assembly services, if the specialized nanoblocks also require specialized assemblers - as might be likely as a way to keep corporate control of designs.

From the consumer's point of view, most everyone may be part of the service economy, staffing boutiques and restaurants and service centers, with a few employed in local factories making products that have high performance components. They'd still shop for goods in stores - but the goods would mostly be produced in the store using specialized nanofactories.

This may sound like pointless make-work, since in theory everyone could have a home nanofactory to produce everything they need. I'm sure many will promote that very idea. But it maintains social order, which all but an idealistic minority will find preferable to anarchy.

Beyond tourism, it isn't clear just how much global trade would be needed. Most raw materials could be locally recycled. There might be some trade in designs.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Engine efficiency: Today's engines are heat engines, so are inherently limited. Friction also plays a major role. But fuel can be converted to electricity at better than Carnot efficiency--fuel cells do that already, and MNT techniques will likely reach 90% or even 99% efficiency. (Scaling laws are a significant help with friction.)

Traction: Until recently, everyone knew that tires couldn't grip at better than 1 G. Now they can. (AFAIK the barrier was purely psychological.) Nano-built tires could be as sticky as gecko feet. And could adjust their contact area to minimize energy use. Of course, the integrity of the road surface might be strained.

Low-altitude flying vehicles or hovercraft have a problem with not being able to stop quickly. They have to move a whole lot of air to generate much force. At best, this is noisy. Then you have the problem of high-velocity air streams coming off the car and causing inconvenience or even damage nearby.


jim moore

MM should also allow something like a hopping + gliding mode of transport. Imagine a chair whose legs are powered telescoping rods that launch you into the air. After you reach maximum altitude inflatable wings sprout out and you glide for a wile. As you near the ground the legs of the chair extend out and grab the ground, the wings then fold up and you are lowered to the ground. Then you jump again. It would be silent, fun and not need much infrastructure. I think the big problem would be avoiding everyone else.

Brett Bellmore

Wheels might be boring, but they are also incredibly efficient. Whereas aircraft, while not as energy efficient, are capable of going essentially anywhere. I can't see much use for legged vehicles outside of very rough terrain, and for entertainment.

Mike Deering

Tom writes:

"...due to security concerns, there may still be the basis for a centralized economy... "

"...most everyone may be part of the service economy, staffing boutiques and restaurants and service centers..."

"This may sound like pointless make-work, since in theory everyone could have a home nanofactory to produce everything they need. I'm sure many will promote that very idea. But it maintains social order, which all but an idealistic minority will find preferable to anarchy."

Tom, I couldn't let these statements go unchallenged. You economic plan is not justified by security needs. There are other better ways of dealing with the security issues than requiring people to serve time in an unnecessary service sector job. And no, the current social order is not preferable to one based on personal self sufficiency and individual freedom.

One of the biggest problems that nanotechnology is capable of solving is "current social order". We should be thinking of ways to discard the current social order, not ways of artificially preserving it.

There will be many who advocate maintaining some semblance of the status quo. They will use "security" and "stability" as excuses for oppression and stagnation. Their primary weapon is fear. Fear of criminals, terrorists, radicals, current totalitarian states, future space colonists, even just people who want to be independent from their control. They will point out every possible danger that could happen, while ignoring the fact that many threats that could be happening now - are not.

They must be opposed at every move. Every time they suggest a new restriction "for our own good" we must object. They are trying to make us serfs in their kingdom rather than free independent citizens. If you don't want your freedoms eroded, be vigilant. Be vocal. Take a stand. Speak up. Be counted. And above all - Vote!

Tom, you claim that "safe" nanoblocks may not be safe because they could be used to build unstated bad things. Well, let's state them: high quality conventional weapons, and the machinery for the production of unconventional weapons. Of course we can build this machinery the old fashioned way, but nanotechnology can do it faster, cheaper, and better. This is a case of where are you going to draw the line. The argument goes, "The more capability the individual has, the greater the danger that he may misuse that capability. And the less capability the individual has, the safer everyone is." This seems self evident but this does not justify an oppressive level of restriction. The question isn't, "How safe can we make it?" No, the question is, "How capable can we make people and still have a reasonable (not perfect) level of safety?"

When someone says, "We have this level of restrictions or we have anarchy." Alarm bells should go off. The options are not limited to current social order or anarchy. There is a whole spectrum from total control to total freedom, and we can choose any point on that line. Choose wisely.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Jim Moore: your comments on "hopping and gliding mode of transport" reminded me of this: http://www.superdairyboy.com/recreational%20Items/Poweriser_Pictures.html

Springs you attach to your feet that supposedly let you jump six feet in the air, run with huge strides, etc.

Off-topic but fun...


Tom Craver

Mike Deering:

Most people just want to live safe and comfortable lives. Such people could generally be individually trusted with full molecular manufacturing capabilities, if they were the only type of people in the world.

But there are also those who feel they have "higher goals" - saving souls, fixing a corrupt society, taking revenge, proving their superiority, wiping out inferiors, etc - and most such feel justified in using force to achieve those goals. Such people cannot be trusted with mature nanotech - they would eventually use it in ways that make nuclear war look merely "bad".

You complain that those in power use fear of such things to keep their power. This is true, but again, most people simply don't care, as long as those in power don't intrude over much on their lives, and adequately do their job of preventing horrors. You may not like that - but if you think it should be changed whether people want it or not, you are edging into the "dangerous people" group described above.

The scenario I presented provides most of the advantages of nanotech that most people would want - material wealth, health, relatively large amounts of leisure time, cool new nanotech gadgets, etc. It does not inherently prevent some of the more radical benefits - life extension, intelligence augmentation, etc.

It has two big problems. The first is that it is people from the "dangerous" camp who would want to take the reins of power in such a society. But generally those who simply want power for the sake of their egos win the struggle for power, since they have no goals that some portion of the population strongly oppose. Such people are relatively harmless compared to those who have "goals".

The other danger is that it might be too stable, creating a stagnant society that goes on and on, never advancing, possibly even sustaining certain ancient horrors (like dying of old age) simply because to change would be to threaten ordered society.

There is a traditional solution - an alternative to living in too ordered a society - namely "The Frontier". Those who are dissatisfied with the limitations of the pleasant but static global society should be free to go settle or build new and freer worlds in space.

Mike Deering

Hey Tom, I like that alternative. I could go for having more stringent restrictions here on Earth than away from the planet, or even out of the solar system. Maybe we can compromise after all.

Tom Craver

Glad we could agree somewhat. I should warn you that I don't think Earth will let space colonists easily get totally out from under her thumb. Security concerns, again. Think in terms of the Old World / New World situation back in the 16th - 18th centuries.

In particular, self-replication technology won't be available in space for a long time, if Earth has its way. Colonists will likely have to do many things the old fashioned way - "cooking and carving" raw materials in bulk to produce what they need.

Brett Bellmore

Then colonization of space will be essentially impossible. The rest of the solar system is sufficiently inhospitable to human life, to require a massive amount of industrial infrastructure per person, which is only possible if that infrastructure builds itself without significant human intervention.

Fortunately, I don't given the regulators much chance of exerting that level of control. And the nice thing about space as a frontier, compared to Earth, is that in space it's always possible to run further away.

Tom Craver

I disagree that space colonization would be impossible. I'm not saying colonists won't have nanotech - just not self-replicating nanotech (SRNano for short).

They would have extremely flexible miniature chemical factories, able to quickly convert raw materials into modest quantities (gallons an hour?) of most any complex organic or inorganic molecular substances. Certainly they'll have a machine that can convert those substances into complex parts.

They would have specialized semi-portable chemical factories that can quickly produce large volumes of a smaller range of highly useful but simpler substances they're likely to need immediately - rocket fuel, LOX, plastic, etc.

They'd have a compact metal refinery and shaping system - producing parts up to perhaps 1 cubic meter, with nothing but energy, designs and raw ores as inputs.

They can take along plentiful supplies of shape-shifting 'morph', to create any temporary structures or simple tools they need at first.

With design databases and probably automated engineering software, these few nanotech enabled machines will let them produce a huge range of non-nanotech automated machines to supply and operate their colony. And these devices will be relatively inexpensive to have made - on Earth or perhaps even on the moon if there is enough demand for them - and shipped into orbit.

Given how much capability colonists will be allowed to have, I don't think they'll need SRNano to get by. So I also don't think the Earth government will have any qualms about declaring anyone who DOES obtain SRNano to be potential terrorists, using all force necessary to arrest them, and utterly destroying their colony. For which they will be sincerely praised by their citizens back home, BTW.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, I suspect that it'll turn out to be fairly simple to bootstrap general-purpose nanofactories. Especially once we have loads&loads of computer power to help with the design. It might be hard enough, and take long enough, and require enough equipment, to deter anyone under moderate surveillance. But there's probably a recipe that starts with a bulk rapid prototyping machine and some chemicals and ends with a covalent fabricator, requiring just a few months and a few semi-trained people (or even just general-purpose robots). With today's tools that recipe might take a very long time to develop. But after MM is developed... With far better chemical simulation, and rapid prototyping of MEMS and maybe NEMS (for high-throughput testing), and some knowledge of how existing molecular manufacturing systems work, I suspect at least a wet-chemistry autoproductive mechanosynthetic system recipe could be designed by a few well-chosen grad students.


Brett Bellmore

Any group of people off somewhere, who are kept reliant on supplies from back home, constitute more of an "outpost" than a "colony". And it's a sure fire recipe for revolt.

Tom Craver

Chris: Yes, bootstrap recipes will certainly be developed, and might be moderately easy to re-invent from common knowledge of nanotech, if suppressed. But if a space colony is doing well without SRnano, why would they risk the wrath of Earth authorities to get it?

Brett: IMO, an outpost is a place people go to do a job for a while; a colony is where one goes to live one's life. Non-nanotech equipment would be sufficient to sustain a colony for quite a long time, if not indefinitely. Nanotech equipment is mainly useful for rapid bootstrapping and easier maintenance of the required industrial base.

Mike Deering

Tom, I need to get as far away from people like you as I can. When I go to another solar system and set up shop the security fanatics on Earth are not going to mess with me, because now I have all the advantages. If there are natural limits on intelligence and technological capability, as I believe there are, then parity will soon be reached between any occupied solar systems with the advantage going to the defender due to superior resource quantities.

Janessa Ravenwood

Mike: I'm with you. Tom's advocating the control freak position on nanotech but I seriously doubt it'll pan out. I also seriously doubt that if a group of U.S. citizens set up a mining colony in the asteroid belt (or whatnot) and the U.S. military blows them up just for possessing MNT that that wouldn't cause extreme outrage back home.

Tom: You can't hope to strangle MNT forever, but I guess you can try.

Janessa Ravenwood

I'd also like to point out that this is kind of thing that starts revolutionary wars. Massacre one colony (families and all) just for possessing a multi-use technology you don’t approve of and the rest will likely start banding together militarily, declare their independence from Earth, and adopt a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to any more ships from that country that they see. Personally I doubt that the U.S. would go this far, but China probably would (which might give us a new cold war with us covertly arming the dissident Chinese colonists).

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