CRN's Chris Phoenix was asked by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to prepare briefing papers for their recent committee sessions investigating molecular manufacturing. Yesterday, we reprinted the first of those, titled "Concepts of Molecular Manufacturing."
Today's entry is Current Status of Molecular Manufacturing:
From 1996 to 2000, the U.S. had a small-scale but highly relevant program in molecular manufacturing led by a team of researchers at NASA Ames. The program extended to a collaboration of over 20 researchers, including institutions such as CalTech and Oak Ridge National Labs, and resulted in numerous publications and conference presentations. A major focus was on aerospace applications of future molecular manufacturing. In 2000, the nanotechnology program at NASA Ames came under new management under the aegis of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and the molecular manufacturing program was disbanded. No program has taken its place. Some research relevant to molecular manufacturing has continued under labels such as protein engineering, molecular machinery, and DNA engineering.
Commercial efforts toward molecular manufacturing have been minimal, due to demands for short-term cash flow returns. Lack of discussion, and in some cases active hostility from business interests, may have contributed to the lack of interest. A few companies have worked on developing tools, including software, for future molecular manufacturing. These companies include Zyvex, Accelrys, NanoTitan and NanoRex.
Internationally, ideas of molecular manufacturing have been more favorably received. Critical and dismissive remarks like those made by scientists and officials in the U.S. and U.K. are notably lacking elsewhere. In fact, the President of India, in remarks inaugurating the country’s nanotechnology program last summer, explicitly singled out the works of Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler. Research in a wide range of countries including Israel, Spain, Germany, Japan, and China seems relevant to early stage exploration of potential pathways, and the researchers often describe their work in terms of future advances toward molecular manufacturing. China has an integrated program under the umbrella of the Chinese Academy of Sciences spanning interdisciplinary fields of DNA engineering, scanning tunneling microscope (STM) manipulation of atoms, and analysis of strong covalent structures.
Despite the lack of support from the NNI, there has been an active community in the U.S. interested and concerned about molecular manufacturing. Several NGO’s have attempted to raise awareness of progress toward molecular manufacturing and the possible implications of a mature technology. These NGO’s have also worked to educate the broad public about the difference between molecular manufacturing and nanoscale technologies, and reduce unwarranted fears about certain extreme consequences of molecular manufacturing. Membership in these organizations is large; for example, Ray Kurzweil’s newsletter has a readership of over 120,000.
Tomorrow: "Applications of Molecular Theory"