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« Nanotech & Science Education | Main | 2006 Pickering Lecture Series »

August 16, 2006


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Been a lurker here for awhile and just had a quick question...if MM is as close as CRN claims is is (almost a near certainty by 2020, as stated in the timeline section of your website) then why should we care about sustainalbility or global warming? I don't believe anything we do over the next 15 or so years will have as great an impact as MM will in alleviating these issues, so why even bother to try?


Lady luck

I'm just glad that Molecular nanotechnology won't be a concern for another 50 years or so. I think we have enough concerns as it is.

Lady luck

I'm just glad that Molecular nanotechnology won't be a concern for another 50 years or so. I think we have enough concerns as it is.

Mike Treder

Rob, that's a good question. The answer is that technology alone does not solve problems. It takes people too. In fact, getting people to work together is a much bigger challenge than is creating new technologies. So if we can start working now toward common agreement on what the most important issues are and what the best principles and practices are for addressing those problems, then when MM does become available, we'll have a much better chance of implementing it effectively and responsibly.


I think Rob makes a great point. Isn't it counter-productive for everyone to work together to "solve" global warming, when all of the proposed solutions assume that MM will not be ready? Most proposals involve reducing emissions today, as with the Kyoto accords. But economically speaking, that is counter-productive. Kyoto would cost far more in economic growth than it would gain in temperature reduction, even in a non-MM scenario. MM makes Kyoto even more of a mistake. By reducing economic growth, it would reduce the resources available to invest in R&D, including in nanotech.

Kyoto is simultaneously so weak as to have no measurable impact on global warming, and so strong as to have significant costs and impact on the economy. Any measure strong enough to truly address the global warming problem will have enormous costs.

Compare with this proposal from Livermore Labs:
The authors look to using space based shields or upper-atmosphere smart materials to reduce warming factors and eliminate global warming. Because most warming impacts will not be felt for decades, we have time to use advanced technology, including nanotech, to respond. They estimate extremely low costs; in fact, so low that if every person on earth set aside 30 cents today and the money were allowed to grow via interest payments, by the middle of the century we would have a self-sustaining fund generating enough annual interest to run the cooling program. This is many orders of magnitude cheaper than the kind of proposals circulating among climate change activists today. A full Drexlerian MM capability such as CRN envisions would make the costs even lower.

Ultimately, whether MM happens as CRN expects or not, we will have vastly greater technological power by mid-century and will be able to deal with the challenges of global warming far more effectively than today. At this point, our best strategy for climate change is an active program of research on the best mitigation technologies - nanotech, biotech, sequestration, cloud enhancement, there are many of them. Since this is not the mainstream direction of global warming advocacy, it would be a mistake for CRN to associate itself too closely with that movement.

Phillip Huggan

That is the problem with optimistic MNT timetables (such as CRN's) and the problem with the philosophy of singulatarianism in general. Just sweep all the problems facing us today under the table until they can be fixed tomorrow.

The "fixes" to global warming are far from certain; certainly less certain than is the threat itself. MNT is not a certainty. See this page for a partial list of hurdles:
I think a sober analysis of present SPM-based tools and techniques (not provided in the above link), yields a MNT timeline estimate anywhere from 25 yrs to 75 yrs.

The same argument made above about compounding rates of R&D returns, also applies to compounding rates of warming. The temperature rise caused by a given CO2 emission in 2006 is irrelevant now, but may be the catastrophic tipping point a century from now. I'm all in favour of devloping a "climate thermostat" contingency engineering technology. But if you look at our GEO lift capacity over the last 30 years, it has gone *down*.

R&D is more effective than doing nothing, but even simpler and cheaper is reducing emmission by an agreement such as Kyoto. The same actors ignoring Kyoto are the same actors who cut R&D funding; Conservative Governments and multinationals. The "let's not cut emmissions but let's increase R&D funding" option, doesn't happen in the real world.

The first action of the Canadian Conservative government upon coming into power in January with a whopping 36% of the popular vote, was to cancel 15 Global Warming R&D programmes, and to later withdraw from Kyoto. Bush actually surpressed NASA satellite photos showing icecap melting. He has harmed the greatest R&D institute on the planet, NASA, by forcing upon their mandate a Return-to-the-Moon mandate, without supplying more funds (forcing the cancellation of much Global Warming R&D). Bush campaigned in 2000 under the banner that America's oil consumption will not be tempered; his Iraq Invasion is directly responsible for about $5 of oil price increases to date.

Show me one certain warming "fix" that will be developed over the next 50-100 years that will be cheaper to develop than is Kyoto (I know Kyoto is dead).

Jake Blande

Well said Philip, I for one don't wan't to leave my children the problems we helped create for the possibility that in the future there "maybe" a cure for it.


An excerpt from a posting I made in a somewhat environmentalist oriented forum back in March 2006:

Here's what bothers, me, from this week's Science editorial:


"A central feature of this long baseline is this: At no time in at least the past 10 million years has the atmospheric concentration of CO2 exceeded the present value of 380 ppmv. At this time in the Miocene, there were no major ice sheets in Greenland, sea level was several meters higher than today's (envision a very skinny Florida), and temperatures were several degrees higher. A more recent point of reference, and the subject of two papers in this issue, is the Eemian: the previous interglacial, about 130,000 to 120,000 years ago. This was a warm climate, comparable to our Holocene, during which sea levels were several meters higher than today's, even though CO2 concentrations remained much lower than today's postindustrial level."

The truth is that present-day CO2 levels are already more than high enough to cause all these bad effects. We have passed the tipping point. And no matter what we do, no matter how stringent the controls we add on new emissions, CO2 will continue to rise at least past 400 ppm and probably past 500. The best we could do is maybe level off about 550, and that would take enormous sacrifice and an unprecedented degree of world cooperation.

The hard truth is that this won't solve things. We'll still see London and New York under water (parts of them, anyway). We'll still lose Florida and much of the Gulf coast. We'll still see 20 feet or more of sea level rise. That's already in the cards! We passed that "tipping point" quite a few years back. As the article notes, today's 380 ppm is already high enough to melt much of the ice.

It's a pretty unhappy message, but that seems to be what the science says now. One of the tests I use to see whether a report on global warming is political or not is whether it implies that if we could just sign on to Kyoto and similar agreements, all this will be fixed. If there is an implication that working to control emissions will fix the problem, IMO that is a political and not a scientific document. At this point the science actually undercuts the political message by basically saying that it's too late, political action is useless to prevent these things from happening.

However, the truth is that there is hope. It comes from a different direction and requires a philosophical approach that is contrary to today's dominant concepts, especially among the intelligentsia. That is to give up on the whole "man lives lightly on the earth" principle and to accept that we must take responsibility for mega-scale engineering.

The only way to solve global warming is to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere. That's the bottom line. We must turn away from "small is beautiful" and adopt an aggressive, decades-long scientific program to create technologies that will allow us to run this planet the way we run a factory. We need to be able to turn a knob and say, let's set the CO2 level to 350 and see how that goes for a while. That is the only hope to avoid these catastrophes.

Do such technologies exist? Well, not today. But they are on the drawing boards. Nanotech and biotech are particularly promising as they would allow for massive production of microscopic CO2 extraction engines at low cost. We're not able to do that yet but it is certainly conceivable to achieve this technology in a crash program by, say, 2050. Other directions should be pursued as well.

It's not going to be popular, because it requires going back to the old idea of "progress", of dependence on science and technology and advancement of knowledge. It also requires accepting that human intervention can make things better, another violation of modern-day academic dogma. But we have no more time for the luxury of fashionable self-doubt and denigration of science. We have to put this behind us and accept that we have made a mess and we are going to fix it. It is time for us to take on the responsibility that is now inevitable, that man must become the true master of this planet.

Phillip Huggan

When I said show me a fix that is cheaper than Kyoto, I didn't mean that as a gauntlet. I meant that I would really like to see a fix. With the space-based Lagrange Point "shade", you need some sort of reflector system too (to moderate any unwanted cooling feedbacks). Probably the entire world's 2006 space economy could not successfully deploy and maintain and research and monitor the effects of such a radical shade. There is cloud seeding but how to only seed low altitude clouds? There is iron seeding the oceans but how to only grow the "good" type of algae. Cutting emissions just seems cheaper than waiting for a low probability (of likelyhood) solution to "materialize" over an uncertain timescale. I know!! We'll wait for cold fusion, it is just around the corner...

I think we've already made it through the worst extinction threats. Got an ideal rock of real estate here. Our ancestors survived the Toba eruption. Europe industrialized. Hitler didn't take prisoners at Dunkirk and launched Barbarossa. The cold war ended without an actual nuke war. We're getting there but after all humanity has made it through, it would be really dumb to lose out on civilization because of increasingly diminishing crop yields or to see our aquifers dry up.


Hmmm...didn't think my first post to this blog would cause such a stir...

I guess I really just wanted to know CRN's position. It seems to be contradictory at times regarding this issue. I myself agree with Hal...no amount of conservation will save us from the damaging effects of global warming...I believe it is already too late. Some type of advanced technology is needed in order to reverse the effects.

It just seemed strange to me that Mike would be pushing conservation while being sure that a solution (MM) is so close at hand.


r ob: one thing is beyond doubt. A change in the CRN timeline will be anounced soon. It might happen by 2010, likely will by 2015, and almost certainly will by 2020


While I think CRN's timeline has always been too optimistic, I also think many skeptics are too pessimistic. In many of the debates I've read concerning MNT development, I've seen skeptics concede that there are no fundamental show-stoppers, and that MNT may be possible after all. Such skeptics then say it will still take a century or more to develop MNT. This does not sound likely to me, I think it very likely considering the huge investment pouring into nanotechnology research every year, and the market forces that are driving every industry toward greater control of matter at the molecular scale; (i.e. superior solar cells, better and more efficient fuel cell membranes, ever increasing miniaturization in the computer chip market) that science will have either proven or disproven the idea of MNT in just a few decades.

If the basic idea is proven to work in say 2020, I see no reason not to expect a nanofactory by 2030 or 2040 at the latest. There would be far too much incentive to develop the technology quickly; so much so that an 80-100yr timeline makes no sense. Also, all of the latest developments in quantum computers that I've read on Brian's blog make me feel confident that fully-functional practical quantum computer will be developed within a decade. With these new tools at our disposal, the entire parts catalog of MNT can be tested with quantum mechanical detail in a matter of years. If a sufficient number of interesting components can be proven to be chemically stable, you can be certain that many more people will get involved with MNT related research. So, in conclusion, I don't think we will have a nanofactory built within CRN's timeline; but in roughly the same time period we may have a "moment of truth" where the idea will be either proven to be worthwhile, or discredited once and for all.


The problem with CRNs timeline is that its not based on anything concrete, there is no research in Molecular manufacturing yet, many unproven theories and none of the tools to make such a machine.

The biggest problem is the unproven theories, like one that I asked Chris was how would a single carbon atom be handled so that it wouldn't 'stick' to the machine itself, or how would superlubricity work exactly? It works when graphite atoms are oriented in a hexganol form, but from the video it seems single carbon atoms are handled, and I don't see how superlubricity will work in this manner. I'm not saying I know it won't work, I'm asking questions more than trying to prove MNT wrong, honestly I don't know much about the process to comment on the feasibility. If anyone can answer my questions I appreciate it.

Phillip Huggan

DT, I don't know about the "assembly line" concept of the nanofactory. It hasn't been modelled in any detail. But whether or not it is functional doesn't doom MNT. A nanofac would be a very mature iteration of MNT.
A reactive carbon moeity (one or two carbon atoms) is chemically bonded to a tool-tip in UHV. The tool tip is affixed to an SPM-like device that transports the moeity in vacuum to a depassivated diamond surface bonding site. This is a metabolism component that has already been researched and modelled in detail (though admittedly building the tool-tip will be hard).


Here's my question though, the carbon atom has to be removed from the diamondoid molecule, some 16 carbon from one diamondoid molecule, so is the tool tip going to pince out each carbon atom from the molecule? how will it pull it off the molecule and keep it in place? what stops the carbon atom from sticking to the tool tip for good, how will the tool tip connect the atom to a work piece?

What about superlubricity? friction?

Phillip Huggan

DT are you referring to removing carbon atoms from a product molecule, or from a feedstock reservoir?

The tool tip connects (and tranfers) the atom to a workpiece via a stronger chemical bond. Carbon atoms as components of feedstock molecules are assumed to be relatively weakly bonded in their feedstock reservoir. By the time a carbon atom becomes a member of a diamond lattice/workpiece, the bond strength is much stronger. Every time the carbon atom is "handed off" the bond strength increases, that's why it doesn't get stuck.

Brian Wang

As Nanoenthusiast indicates, a lot of advancing technology is coming together that is making MNT easier and easier to achieve. Even if initially you have to use some kind of kludge-bootstrap of self-assembly, DNA nano, advanced chemistry, with the best arrays of STM, SPM, TEM, and laser manipulators to make the first sets of nanoblocks. Achieve better and better molecularly precise control and cross over to MNT.

Better laser manipulation of atoms and microscopic objects.
Better microscopes.
Better MEMS (less friction and wear) ==> better STM arrays
Quantum computers
Substantially better regular computers
Better Synthetic biology/DNA Nano/Chemistry/self-assembly
Protein engineering, DNA synthesis

MNT is not the only tech that could work for the global warming problem.
Details on carbon sequestering, another approach to reducing or delaying global warming It would have to be scaled up about 1000 times to balance off the CO2 that we use. Initially there is incentive to sequester in old oil fields to allow for more oil recovery to offset costs or earn profit.

NASA sunshield study

Far better fuel efficiency. Diesel-hybrids, hydraulic hybrids, starRotor engines. Superconducting engines. (superconductors for less energy loss in transmission). Better solar cells.

What we need is to better manage a portfolio of research and development. Try more approaches because we cannot be sure in advance of what the best way is. Fail faster and more cheaply. We are underfunding the basket of potential home-run super impact technologies.

We should not cut off or not try potentially very promising ideas to soon. Open minds and letting someone put his own money and whoever they can convince to back them.


"Carbon atoms as components of feedstock molecules are assumed to be relatively weakly bonded in their feedstock reservoir"

But if the molecule is a diamondoid molecule wouldn't it still have to "grab" each carbon one by one from the molecule? Also how is it guaranteed that the molecules are weakly bonded? Is the diamondoid molecules going to be created? if so, is there going to be another machine that will connect the carbon and hydrogen atoms together one by one to make a diamondoid molecule?

Also can you explain superlubricity and where it fits in the whole process? I've heard it multiple times here. Thanks

Phillip Huggan

"But if the molecule is a diamondoid molecule wouldn't it still have to "grab" each carbon one by one from the molecule?"

The whole point is to take a cheap hydrocarbon (non-diamondoid) feedstock and make diamonds. If your pathway does involve higher diamondoids or CNTs along the way, it would make little sense to take the large diamondoid molecules apart one by one. That is just silly.

"Also how is it guaranteed that the molecules are weakly bonded?"

By a suitable choice of feedstock. Why take apart diamonds or diamond nanorods to make more diamonds. Is that even possible?

"Is the diamondoid molecules going to be created?"

Yes. Hydrocarbon feedstock and energy in, diamonds out.

" if so, is there going to be another machine that will connect the carbon and hydrogen atoms together one by one to make a diamondoid molecule?"

Yep. Hopefully it is the same "arm" machine that snagged the carbon moeity feedstock from a feedstock reservoir in the first place.

"We should not cut off or not try potentially very promising ideas to soon. Open minds and letting someone put his own money and whoever they can convince to back them. "

I agree with the caveat public funding sources are perfectly acceptable here.


A lot of these questions are dealt with in the "Productive Nanosystems" video from Nanorex and the latest Freitas, Merkle, et al. paper. The paper used quantum density functional theory to model a functionalized tooltip consisting of an irregular pyramid of hydrogen passivated diamond terminated with a germanium tip. I say irregular because, and this is my understanding, the classical pyramid was scrapped in favor of a structure more resembling a Phillips-head screwdriver rather that a pyramid; this was done to help reduce interactions between the tool and the work surface. As Philip has stated the tip is supposed to release the carbon dimer because the attraction is stronger between the unpassivated work surface and the germanium tooltip. The issue of where one gets a supply of carbon dimers and how they are mounted on the tooltip is not, if I remember correctly, addressed in the paper. These issues are, however, addressed to some extent in the nanofactory animation linked above. The proposed factory uses an acetylene feedstock. The first set of tips removes the acetylene from the sorting rotor. A second set of tips removes the carbon atoms and then adds them to the growing workpiece much like in the Freitas paper. According to the narration, the interaction between the tips has been modeled using quantum chemistry techniques. How you remove the hydrogen from the first set of tips is only addressed rather obliquely in the video. It is mentioned how the only waste products of the nanofactory are warm air and water; the assumption being that the H would be added to O to create, and release water molecules. This part of the process is entirely, unfortunately, left up to the viewer's imagination. Also, some of the hydrogen will be needed to passivate the diamond workpieces later, as has been indicated by Philip.

I have a few problems with the animation myself. First how is the workpiece held on to the red palette things. If it is through Van-Der-Waal forces then how is the attraction going to be strong enough to pull the carbon dimers away from the tool-tip? This part has not, to the best of my knowledge, been simulated using quantum chemistry. More importantly, when building the second layer, what is to stop the attraction between the carbon dimer on the tooltip from disturbing the first layer? Secondly, I would like to see more detailed analysis of the sorting rotors which are, in my opinion, almost as important to the whole enterprise as the tooltips. Many of the components of MNT, if need be*, be scaled up an order of magnitude or so to reduce odd chemical behavior; no such latitude exists with the tooltips or sorting rotors. It then makes sense to pay more mind to the rotors than is presently being paid.

Nevertheless, even if the specifics of the animation are changed, the basic hydrocarbon chemistry will likely remain the foundation of diamondoid mechanosynthesis. Other covalent solids, such as sapphire, have also been considered; but are not viewed as being as valuable as diamond.

*It has always been my impression that the there is an attempt to reduce the CPU overhead of component analysis by making things with a ridiculously small number of atoms. The disadvantage of this being the presence of highly strained bonds in various mechanical designs. It has not been proven that any of these parts absolutely need to be that small in the first place to create products with powerful and unique properties.

Please anyone, if I've gotten anything wrong in the above post, correct me.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

A few brief comments on a very interesting thread:

Climate change appears to be well underway, and I completely agree that planet-scale engineering will be necessary to avoid loss of land, loss of farming potential, etc. Molecular manufacturing appears to be the easiest way to implement planet-scale engineering.

Resource wars could set us back far enough for climate change to make our current population/civilization level not just unsustainable but unsupportable even in the short term. Depending who you ask, resource wars are already starting. In addition to reducing CO2 emissions, non-fossil energy sources will reduce pressure for resource wars. So they seem to be well worth working toward even in the short term.

Even after MM is developed, it may not be used effectively. Security concerns or rent-seeking corporations may keep it away from the public and even from researchers and climate engineers that could use it to avert climate disruption. That's another reason to seek for *effective* alternate solutions.

I agree that a number of mainstream anti-CO2 proposals are political rather than workable.

On scale of molecular machines: If you make them bigger, they take longer to make. Ten times linear = 1000 times volumetric = several weeks instead of one hour doubling time. There are areas where I'm happy to give up an order of magnitude of performance, but linear size of molecular machine features isn't one of them.



Thanks to everyone for chiming in om my questions....i kinda feel like a dope here, a lot of this talk is over my head...not exactly a scientist/engineer, just an average joe with a keen interest in future tech.

Chris/Mike, do you believe you will be altering your timeline as Monty says, or do you still feel confident in your predictions?


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Rob, the thing to understand is that Monty is a witty sort--the phrasing of his statement mirrors the phrasing of our prediction.

One way or the other, we do expect to alter our prediction--if MM is not developed by 2020, we'll admit it... and if MM is developed before then, we'll alter our prediction from "probable" to "definite."

Whether MM happens by 2020 or not may depend more on politics than on technology. So from one point of view, we shouldn't make confident predictions about anything that depends on politics. But the chance of politics in every tech-heavy nation turning against MM seems slim.

Here's how I see the timeline:
2006-2010: Paradigm shift, widespread availability of theoretical tools, continuing insights into simplification of bootstrapping.

2010-2015: Multiple research programs using circa-2010 tools to develop specially-built molecular machines and other capabilities.

2015-2020: Integrating these capabilities into a diamondoid molecular manufacturing system; bootstrapping that into a nanofactory.

This timeline could be advanced by five years by a major corporate effort starting in the next few years. It could be advanced by perhaps up to ten years by a major government effort (structured like the Manhattan Project, not like the NNI) starting now.

As the paradigm shifts, it becomes increasingly likely that a major effort will be started. I'd be surprised if there weren't several major efforts underway by 2010. However, any given effort may not succeed.


Phillip Huggan

Chris, I don't think nanotechnology tools 3 years and 4 months from now will be a great deal better than todays tools are (certainly there will be advances), at least for the purposes of diamondoid manipulations.

I agree simulations will solve or make painfully visible, diamond surface reconstruct issues. But simulations can't help make better SPM actuators. Even if a diamond nanofac can be perfectly simulated, we still need to know how to build it. The moeity reservoir-to-deposition-site speed of our fastest AFMs will be slow, measured in seconds or minutes per operation. You don't get the benefit of scaling laws until the first proto assembler (or proto actuator) is completed.

To bootstrap by 2020, a Nanhattan would have to invent an SPM feedstock "alternator" or figure out a way to use adamantanes/polymantanes or diamond shards as building blocks. I know, I'm anxious to take over the world too!

Jake Blande

Thinking along the lines of polymantanes obviously there would be need for a thiol group to anchor on a substrate, most likely a gold surface for any usefullness, again this would be self-assembly...
Adamantane itself wouldn't be that useful except as a possible mask, good thermal stability though.

I still believe that 2020 is way to early a projection for MNT.

-Please don't let opinion suplant good old fashion research-

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