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: Ralph Merkle


Dr. Ralph Merkle is a nanotechnology expert, Alcor Director, Zyvex Principal Fellow, and Foresight Institute adviser. He talked about health, wealth, and atoms.

If you shuffle around the same atoms found in coal, you could get a diamond. Arranging atoms allows for greater precision, diversity, and lower manufacturing costs. Suppose that you can build anything you want with the best materials, such as diamond? Diamond is:

  • Strong
  • Hard
  • Not reactive
  • Dense
  • Impresses women

Diamond is an amazing material. It will allow us to build extremely small mechanisms such as joints, buckeyball bearings, tubes, planetary gears, and neon pumps that pump individual atoms.

Making diamond today involves taking hydrogen and carbon, adding energy, and creating highly reactive molecules that settle into a diamond film. There is very little control as to position of atoms. Molecular tools would enable us to synthesize stable diamond structures with atomic precision.

We will be able to make almost anything of high complexity. There are over 100 elements in the periodic table, which are over 100 tools we can use to enable a vast range of new activities. Of these 100 elements, three elements – hydrogen, carbon, and germanium – have been chosen by Merkle for specific utilization. Many things are made out of hydrogen and carbon and their structures can become quite rigid. Germanium is included in the mix to add some synthetic flexibility. Out of these materials, a series of nine molecular tools that have been theorized to work in real world situations via computational methods could be constructed. These tools have high accuracy positional control by rigidity and lowering the temperature for activity.

Before we create these tools, and without the guidance of further computational and theoretical work, Merkle stated that we will wander in a nanotechnologic desert for a long time.

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