News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

NanoBio 2007 Day Two Speaker: Chris Phoenix


Chris Phoenix is CRN’s Director of Research and has studied nanotechnology for more than 15 years. He has a BS in Symbolic Systems and an MS in Computer Science.

The following is paraphrased from Phoenix’s lecture “A History of Nanotechnology from 1959 to 2029”.

Some people like to trace the field of nanotechnology to 1959 to Richard Feynman and his classic talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom“. At the time there had been plenty of work on colloid and electron microscopes. In the early 1980’s, Eric Drexler started publishing articles about how we could engineer at the nanoscale using proteins in a machine like manner.

This set the stage for Engines of Creation, Drexler’s popular book coining the phrase nanotech as well as introduced the concept of nanotechnology to the public. This book describes possibilities, and not the actual way that science could go about making it a reality; therefore, scientists decided that the book wasn’t worth anything and the ideas presented were not possible. A concept that still worries the lay population is the concept of ‘gray goo’, where nano-machines that are badly programmed run amock and destroy the biosphere, thereby destroying life as we know it. To this day there are proponents of the gray goo theory, especially in the anti-technology realms of criticism.

Early molecular manufacturing was based on the principles of biology: small manufacturing systems and organic-like chemistry that creates very high performance machines and high performance products.

Molecular Manufacturing’s Power: why we would like to pursue this line of thought.

  • Scaling laws – smaller is better working
  • Low friction and wear
  • General purpose manufacturing
  • Highly reliable operation
  • High material strength
  • Inexpensive material (carbon)

There were skeptics from the beginning; people assumed that only biological entities could replicate. Other questions were raised, such as how molecular manufacturing and resulting products would be powered and controlled, as well as questions of quantum uncertainties and the idea that chemistry was too unreliable to control properly.

The first thoughts on nanomachinery applications were related to medicine. Scientists saw value in the technology in terms of body repairs and parts manufacturing, recovery from cryonic freezing, cellular building, and genetic repair. Medical nanorobots could navigate in the body easily as long as they had a power source and did not overheat the body as they worked.

In the 1990’s nanotechnology concepts started to mature and take root in Drexler’s Nanosystems. The book described the physics of nanosystems such as scaling laws and atomic-scale physics (e.g. superlubricity, discrete dimensions, quantum phenomena). The word “nanotechnology” was used underground by college students and lab scientists.

In the year 2000, nanotechnology went mainstream with the advent of a national Nanotechnology Initiative in the United States, US$1 billion in funding for nanotech defined as anything interesting and small. The gray goo problem also came to mainstream attention with Bill Joy’s “Why the future doesn’t need us“.

Nanoscale Technologies:

  • Build small objects and structures
  • Use big machines
  • Limited product range
  • Diverse but limited applications
  • Lots of cool physics tricks
  • Not just one technology; not even just one family
  • Materials, not products

From 2000 to 2007, nanoscale technology advanced in many directions. The not-for-profit organization CRN was founded in December 2002. Nanofactory architecture ventures were established all over the world including Zyvex, NanoRex, and Ideas Factory.

Phoenix wrote a 73 page paper called [PDF] “Design of a Primitive Nanofactory” in 2003. He postulated that once you have a machine that can take small molecules of carbon from other materials all you need is someone to engineer how to put them together. The factory design was rather large, though, and Burch and Drexler came up with a better architecture design in a short computer-animated film related in July 2005 and updated in 2006 called “Productive Nanosystems: From Molecules to Super Products“.

More recent technology advances include picking and placing a single silicon atom (Oyabu), [PDF] DNA staples (Rothmund), and many more.

Molecular manufacturing will continue to advance as designs get better and mainstream acceptance continues to grow. The future holds for us better computers; assemblers; implications in medicine; diamond fabrication by standing probe microscopes; manufacturing of other components such as alumina, sapphire, and silicon; brain machine interfaces; space flight; and planet-scale engineering.

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