Continuing our series of five installments analyzing nanotechnology and risk, we turn now to molecular manufacturing.
Earlier this week, Part 1 gave an overview of existing nanoscale technologies, and Part 2 assessed the risks of nanoscale technology. Part 3 (today) is an overview of molecular manufacturing. Part 4 will address the risks of molecular manufacturing and Part 5 is a conclusion with recommendations.
Part 3: Molecular Manufacturing Overview
Molecular manufacturing is based on a simple idea: use programmable chemistry and assembly to create complex products with nanoscale features. This is a more precise way of manufacturing than today's methods, and should make products with far higher performance. Computers and motors could be a million times smaller, and materials could be 100 times stronger. Precision automated manufacturing using tiny machines would allow a complete, self-contained, general-purpose factory to sit on a desktop. And because smaller things work faster, the factory could fabricate its own mass (including a duplicate factory, if desired) in just a few hours.
The products of molecular manufacturing would be extremely inexpensive to make. Strong, chemically bonded components would be very reliable, especially since the chemical fabrication operations would be simple and repetitive. High reliability would allow complete automation, eliminating labor and maintenance cost. The R&D cost of the first factory could be spread over all the factories it could produce, and all the factories they could produce, and so on. The major remaining cost is raw materials and energy.
The material supply for a nanofactory would be simple chemicals. The energy required could be high, but still a good payoff considering the value of the product. As building materials, the products are expected to be competitive with steel given their greater strength, even at today's energy prices. As computers, medical devices, and aerospace hardware, their value would be orders of magnitude higher than their cost. To put it in perspective, a few milligrams of motors could power your car, a few milligrams of circuitry would be a world-class supercomputer, and a few milligrams of artificial red cells could keep a person alive for many minutes even with their heart stopped. But making kilogram-scale products should not be much more difficult than making milligram-scale products.
If a factory could build a duplicate in a few hours, then the number of available factories could grow exponentially, multiplying by 100 or 1000 each week. Production capacity will be essentially unlimited. An important product of the nanofactory would be solar cells. A lightweight design could collect enough energy to build another of the same size in a day or two. This implies that energy will not be a limiting factor in production capacity. And the main chemical element required would be carbon, which is plentifully available in many forms. Because a variety of physics factors work together to make molecular fabrication and nanoscale manipulation simpler than large-scale industrial robotics, the factories are expected to be completely automated; this implies that labor costs (and manufacturing jobs) will disappear.
The process of designing products could be greatly accelerated by the ability to build prototypes very quickly and cheaply. Also, the vastly higher performance of components implies that most human-scale products would be mostly empty space, reducing the effort required to balance engineering tradeoffs. All in all, the process of product design might resemble software engineering more than hardware engineering. A present-day illustration of the effects of rapid prototyping can be found in the electronics industry. Two kinds of chips, ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) and FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays), have very similar functionality: they can be configured for a particular product to carry out a complex task. But ASICs take months to manufacture, while FPGAs take seconds to reprogram. As a result, ASICs may require an order of magnitude more design effort because the cost of mistakes is so much higher.
These considerations imply that the development of the first molecular manufacturing system will create a sudden and substantial technological advance in our ability to manufacture large, complex, nanostructured products. How rapidly this could be adopted in diverse applications remains a subject of debate. However, it seems clear that there is potential for abrupt transformation of several industries, infrastructures, and strategic military factors. The potential benefits include replacement of inefficient or ecologically harmful infrastructure, rapid medical advances, and inexpensive large-scale humanitarian projects. This suggests substantial opportunity for profit. However, molecular manufacturing also creates a variety of risks and disruptions that will require careful policymaking to avoid. These will be considered in our next installment.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 4: Risks of Molecular Manufacturing.