Nanotechnology. You’re probably familiar with its promise in the form of the Star Trek replicator. You want a glass of white wine and Chicken Cordon Bleu? Punch the keys on the microwave-like replicator and seconds later you’ll be drinking a glass of Pinot Gris and digging into a plate of steaming hot chicken.
The Star Trek replicator creates molecules from subatomic particles and arranges those molecules to form a requested object. Hungry? The replicator first forms atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen –- arranges them into amino acids, proteins, and cells –- and puts them all together as your wine and chicken.
This is the 22nd Century Star Trek vision of nanotechnology – creating molecules and objects from quarks, photons, and neutrinos.
The near-future 21st Century vision of nanotechnology –- detailed in Dr. K. Eric Drexler’s seminal book Engines of Creation and elaborated in a nanotechnology roadmap –- has us assembling molecules using tiny, nanoscale robots with on board molecular computers.
"If we rearrange the atoms in coal we can make diamond,” explains nanopioneer Dr. Ralph Merkle. “If we rearrange the atoms in sand (and add a few other trace elements) we can make computer chips. If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and air we can make potatoes."
Such is the vision of nanotechnology – like the Mr. Fusion unit on the DeLorean time machine in the movie series Back to the Future, you can imagine dropping a banana peel into your Mr. Nano unit instead. Rather than the 1.5 GW of power required to power Dr. Emmett Brown’s time machine, you get Chicken Cordon Bleu (or a bag of potato chips if you prefer).
A promising method of molecular manufacturing first theorized by Drexler and later tested by Merkle and collaborator Rob Freitas is diamondoid mechanosynthesis. This is the mechanical synthesis of stable chemical structures using covalently bonded carbon –- otherwise known as diamond.
This manufacturing technology would build macroscale products atom-by-atom using bottom-up assembly, in contrast to the top-down assembly that represents almost all present-day manufacturing.
Or imagine targeted anti-aging therapy and drug delivery. Nanoscale machines in the bloodstream can be used to target and repair cancer cells and other pathologies. Rob Freitas has written extensively on the medical applications of molecular nanotechnology and medical nanorobotics.
Another promising molecular-level manufacturing technology that can also be used for targeted drug delivery is found in Paul Rothemund’s work folding stringy DNA molecules into tiny, two-dimensional patterns known as DNA origami. See Swan in a Box.
Like diamondoid mechanosynthesis, DNA origami is a bottom-up fabrication technique that exploits the intrinsic properties of atoms and molecules to make simple nanostructures.
The pace of development toward these nanotech visions is accelerating. Here’s the mind-boggling list of recent nanotech developments.
“Utility fog” is a term suggested by Dr. John Storrs Hall to describe a hypothetical collection of nanorobots together performing a certain function. This is one of the more radical visions of nanotechnology manufacturing and a source for several SF novels – a cloud of microscopic robots with on board computers and arms reaching in several different directions that could perform 3D lattice reconfiguration and build, say… a chair. Or a car.
How will engineers build the nanoscale robots for the molecular assembly lines of the future? Carbon nanotubes are essentially molecular cylinders of graphitic carbon that can be used to fabricate nanoscale devices by providing molecular probes, pipes, wires, bearings and springs –- the components needed to build nanoscale machines like those envisioned by Drexler, Hall, and others.
The pace of development toward these nanotech visions is accelerating. During May 2009 alone, advances involving DNA and RNA molecules show the promise of integrating nanotechnology with carbon nanotubes and nanoparticle metals (sized between 1 and 100 nanometers) to bootstrap precise control structures.
Here’s the mind-boggling list of recent nanotech developments:
• DNA wrapped carbon nanotubes for artificial tissue
• Two ways to make large scale three dimensional structures out of DNA
1. Routing a single-stranded scaffold DNA (a virus genome) through every section of a tube template
2. DNA used to assemble sheets of metal nanoparticles, that could be the basis of nanocircuits and could be integrated with the 3D nanotechnology
• Large scale 3D nanotechnology with DNA that is integrated with carbon nanotubes, diamond nanorods, nanoparticle metal, graphene and other DNA compatible chemistry
• DNA to detect pathogens and be used for drug delivery
• Modified RNA so that it reliably enter cells for drug delivery
• Ultrathin diamond nanorods – only twice as thick as the diamond rod logic for the molecular computers described by Drexler.
Given the level of extremely rapid discovery and experimentation, it seems like we may be reaching a tipping point – and it certainly supports the case for Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns.
The Foresight Nanotechnology Institute is the leading think tank and public interest institute for nanotechnology. Founded in 1986, this institute was the first organization to provide outreach concerning the benefits and risks of nanotechnology.
The concept of nanotechnology is largely credited to a talk given by physicist Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner in Physics, at an American Physical Society meeting at Caltech on December 29, 1959. Feynman described a process to manipulate individual atoms and molecules.
The Foresight Institute established the Feynman Grand Prize in 1996 to motivate scientists and engineers to design and construct a functioning nanoscale robotic arm with specific performance characteristics. This $250,000 incentive prize is somewhat analogous to the Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence (AI) – a Grail of sorts.
Either a human-level AI agent or a nanoscale robot arm will bring big changes.
The Foresight Institute is also helping to set the agenda for the beneficial applications of nanotechnology:
1. Providing Renewable Clean Energy
2. Supplying Clean Water Globally
3. Improving Health and Longevity
4. Healing and Preserving the Environment
5. Making Information Technology Available To All
6. Enabling Space Development.
So how do we get there from here? Supported through grants to the Foresight Institute by the Waitt Family Foundation (founding sponsor) and Sun Microsystems, and with direct support from Nanorex, Zyvex Labs, and Synchrona, a distinguished multi-disciplinary group of scientists and engineers have created a 198 pp. nanotechnology roadmap.
The roadmap’s executive summary describes a unique, cross-disciplinary process for exploring current capabilities and near-term opportunities in atomically precise technologies (APT), and examines pathways leading toward advanced atomically precise manufacturing (APM)..
The long-term vision is the fabrication of a wider range of materials and products with atomic precision. However, there are strong differences of opinion on how rapidly this will occur. All agree, however, that expanding the scope of atomic precision will dramatically improve high-performance technologies of all kinds, from medicine, sensors, and displays to materials and solar power.
If nanotechnology follows Moore’s law (transistors on a chip double every 18 months), this level of nanotechnology could occur in the next 15 years or less. The vision includes:
• Precisely targeted agents for cancer therapy
• Efficient solar photovoltaic cells
• Efficient, high-power-density fuel cells
• Single molecule and single electron sensors
• Biomedical sensors (in vitro and in vivo)
• High-density computer memory
• Molecular-scale computer circuits
• Selectively permeable membranes
• Highly selective catalysts
• Display and lighting systems
• Responsive (“smart”) materials
• Ultra-high-performance materials
• Nanosystems for APM.
The Roadmap identifies three successive development horizons – with timelines clearly dependent upon funding and R&D (Table 1).
Table 1. Projected nanotechnology applications for successive development horizons
So How Close Are We Really?
Given such rapid recent technological progress, how close are we to achieving the vision of molecular nanotechnology in the roadmap?
h+ Magazine asked this question of some of the pioneers who founded the science of nanotechnology: Drexler, Hall, Merkle, and Freitas…
K. Eric Drexler
K. Eric Drexler, Ph.D., is a researcher and author whose work focuses on advanced nanotechnologies and directions for current research. Drexler was awarded a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Molecular Nanotechnology (the first degree of its kind). Dr. Drexler serves as Chief Technical Advisor to Nanorex, a company developing open-source design software for structural DNA nanotechnologies.
To describe progress toward advanced nanotechnology, I’d like to offer an analogy to spaceflight. For decades, there was progress rocketry, but no spaceflight. Rockets flew faster, higher, and further, yet there were no communications satellites, weather satellites, or astronauts. Within five years of the first satellite launch, there were all three.
Today, there is rapid progress toward nanotechnologies at the level I described in Engines of Creation (with updated objectives, of course), but there is a threshold ahead, like reaching orbit, that hasn’t yet been achieved. Although the world-changing technologies accessible at that level are still years in the future, there is a technology roadmap, and progress is accelerating.
J. Storrs Hall
"Josh" Hall is President of Foresight Institute, author of Nanofuture: What’s Next for Nanotechnology, fellow of the Molecular Engineering Research Institute and Research Fellow of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. Hall was also a computer systems architect at the Laboratory for Computer Science Research at Rutgers University from 1985 until 1997. His most recent book is Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine.
There is certainly a lot of progress in the labs. The DNA origami (and 3D structures) work is quite promising. Give them a few years and they will be making circuits by having the DNA mats bind and position components and wires. I’d guess that by 2020 the self-assembly and top-down photo lithography approaches to building circuits will have merged. The semiconductor industry roadmap calls for four nanometer gate lengths in 2022, which is just about right…
The big roadblock that nobody’s looking at is powered moving parts – nanomachines. It’s a toss-up as to when that will be hurdled, because it depends so much on how much effort is put into it. The Foresight Institute is going to be concentrating on this in the coming years, to what effect we don’t know. My best guess is that the technology to win the Feynman Grand Prize (that is, build a working robot arm at the nanoscale) will come somewhere between 2020 to 2030, depending on the level of effort.
Dr. Merkle received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1979 where he co-invented public key cryptography. He joined Xerox PARC in 1988, where he pursued research in security and computational nanotechnology until 1999. He was a Nanotechnology Theorist at Zyvex until 2003, when he joined the Georgia Institute of Technology as a Professor of Computing until 2006. He is now a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.
There’s a lot of work on self assembly in general and DNA nanotechnology in particular – it’s very exciting and advances the state of the art. We can do things today at the molecular scale that we couldn’t do even a few years ago.
I’ve been working with (Rob) Freitas on mechanosynthesis, which is one of several routes to develop nanotechnology that is being explored. We’ve been collaborating with various people, including Professor Philip Moriarty of the Nanoscience Group in the School of Physics at the University of Nottingham, an experimentalist in England.
It might still be a few decades before we have the ability to inexpensively arrange atoms in most of the ways permitted by physical law, but progress has been remarkable — the exponential trends continue to be exponential, and there’s every reason to think they will continue that way for some time.
Robert A. Freitas Jr. is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (IMM) in Palo Alto, California, and was a Research Scientist at Zyvex Corp., the first molecular nanotechnology company, during 2000–2004. Freitas is the author of Nanomedicine, the first book-length technical discussion of the potential medical applications of molecular nanotechnology and medical nanorobotics.
I think the pace of nanotechnology development is slowly accelerating on all fronts.
Progress in DNA nanotech continues to quicken, increasing our ability to arrange organic matter by design at the molecular level.
Diamondoid MNT (Molecular Nanotechnology) also continues to make steady progress, both in terms of experimental and theoretical accomplishments, with the first focused experimental work on diamond mechanosynthesis finally underway since last October.
We are clearly moving closer to achieving the long-term vision of medical nanorobotics and MNT.
In Conclusion: The Coming Diamond Age
Surprisingly, a work of SF is a required textbook at MIT’s Media Lab.
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson highlights the world of the relatively near future. “The Feed” allows most anything to be created at any outlet (think Star Trek replicators), creating a minimum standard of living for all mankind through the spread of nanotechnology.
Nanoscale clouds of mites (think Utility Fog) – engineered nanoprobes – fly about gathering information. The mites can examine people from the inside and detect medical problems. Mites, like viruses, can infect or inoculate people.
Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is, of course, based on diamondoid mechanosynthesis – the ability to assemble diamond structures form carbon atoms that Merkle and Freitas are actively researching today.
It’s notable that both Drexler and Merkle are given honorable mention in this SF-textbook-blueprint for the 21st Century.
If we are to believe Drexler, Hall, Merkle, and Freitas and the nanotechnology roadmap – and the accelerating pace of nanotechnology development does appear to support them – we are on the cusp of a new era in the next 20-30 years.
Such an era would be akin in magnitude to the Information Age, the Industrial Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, and the Stone Age.
Except this time, it’s the Diamond Age.