Last December, a powerful earthquake struck Bam, Iran, killing more than 43,000 and leaving over 75,000 homeless. This year’s monsoon season in South Asia has been among the worst in recent history; the rains in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have devastated crops, washed away roads and homes, left tens of millions homeless and killed over 1,700 people. Last month, Typhoon Rananim killed over 100 people in China and left thousands more homeless.
Until scientists can better understand the complex interactions between chaotic systems that combine to result in natural disasters -- no easy task -- we will continue to be hit by earthquakes, volcanoes, monsoons, floods, typhoons, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Prevention is still far in the future.
But molecular manufacturing could offer significant hope for improved response and more effective relief of human suffering. Consider the following hypothetical scenario.
A few years from now, in a remote agrarian region...
The river floods. The village is destroyed. Five thousand farming families are suddenly homeless, without even clean water to drink. The roads are washed out, and supplies must be delivered by helicopter. In 2004, this would have been a humanitarian disaster in the making. Today, however, a few flights can deliver all the necessary supplies. How is this possible?
Thousands of technological advances have made relief supplies more compact and effective. But the major advance is the portable nanofactory. Using local materials, it can build a wide range of humanitarian supplies. Let's watch as the first helicopter is unloaded...
The first crate is the water system. For only 25,000 people, this can be pre-supplied. The pipes are folded plastic; they look too flimsy to hold pressure, but they do the job. A few intakes are thrown into the still-muddy river, a block of fuel is loaded into the small generator, and the filter goes to work. Within minutes, clean water is inflating the pipes into a grid with 500 spigots; these outline the plan of the temporary refugee camp, supplying 100,000 gallons per day of purified water.
The second crate has already been unpacked. This is the heart of the system -- the portable factory. Packed with nanotechnology and robotics, weighing 200 pounds and standing half as tall as a person, it can produce two tons per day of products. Control is simple: a touch screen selects the type and number of products to produce. After rapidly surveying the situation, the decision is made: the air is warm, but night is falling, so tents are needed first. Five thousand family-sized tents, each weighing two ounces, will take three hours to produce. A two-ton tank of oil is dropped from the belly of the helicopter, and connected to the factory. Within the factory, the oil is turned into nanotubes and sheets, which are rapidly stitched together. The finished product can inflate itself, though it must be staked or weighed down with rocks. By 10:00 pm, all the refugees are housed.
Other helicopters have brought food, but the expense of transporting many tons per day by helicopter would tax the local budget. Besides, the people should not have to continue living in tents. This is not a problem. The morning of the second day, 250 people receive training in running the factory, and 5,000 more are sent out to gather organic matter. The factory has been working overnight-making more factories. In one hour, it can duplicate itself. In the second hour, each of those duplicates makes another. Eight hours later, there are 256 factories ready to use, and the oil tank is half empty. The factories now use the rest of the oil to make an equal number of compact chemical plants, each one capable of distilling almost any organic matter into oil.
The camp is divided into 250 units of 100 people each. Each unit receives one factory and one chemical plant. The people will be able to request a variety of common supplies, including clothing, building materials, and small prefab houses or greenhouses. The factory can also supply a bland food; vitamin and mineral supplements must be added, but transportation costs for these are negligible. The factory can produce 40 pounds of supplies per person per day-adequate to house the entire camp the first day, and build greenhouses on the second day. Human waste is dumped, and later piped, into the chemical plants.
The living environment is comfortable, but strange. As the flooded land dries, the village is slowly rebuilt. Vacant houses are deflated and burned (fed back to the chemical plants). Most of the factories are also burned, but the village keeps a few. Some of the farmers now prefer growing crops in greenhouses—and the next time the river floods, no outside aid will be required.
That’s one scenario. Some of the details may change, but in broad terms, this shows the remarkable humanitarian potential of responsible nanotechnology.