Singularity University – Day Three – Ralph Merkle on Nanotechnology – Part 1 of 2

Wednesday kicked off with Ralph Merkle‘s "Overview of Nanotechnology," that gave us a thorough explanation what "nanofactories with molecular precision" are, and their implications for the manufacturing industry.

Ralph Merkle and Rob Freitas, Jr. are the co-chairs for Singularity University’s Nanotechnology Track. The team also co-authored the book Kinematic – Self-Replicating machines. (Here’s Chapter One of the nicely hyperlinked version they made available online.)

Rob Freitas, Jr. is also known for filing the first-ever mechanosynthesis patent. (It was first filed in 2004 as a provisional patent, then later as a full utility patent, by Zyvex, in February, 2005).

Ralph explained the concept of "self-assembly," and how biological cells in nature already use self-assembly techniques to replicate themselves. (A simple example of a self-replicating, biological process found in nature would be when bacteria replicates itself as an infection "spreads" throughout your body.)
He projected an image of T4 Bacteriophage, describing it as a "parambulating self-actuating syringe," able to inject itself into other bacterias.

He then explained that what we’re talking about doing is using nanotechnology to create "artificial self-replicating systems" — systems that duplicate many of the processes of biological systems — in order to create both biological materials (such as a vaccines) and non-biological materials  (such as electronic components or building construction materials).

It became much easier to understand the new "molecular precision" that nanotechnology brings to the table, after Ralph described the rather simple analogy of taking the smaller parts of a car’s engine and stirring them into a big pot, expecting them to be able to fit together somehow on their own. 

Instead of this scenario, nanotech "toolkits" allow us to grab the individual parts of molecules and fit them together in appropriate ways, in order to assemble larger and larger pieces, until we are building recognizable full-scale products, such as a laptop computer, or a blouse, or a building.

Ralph explained how both theory and experiments were required to make progress in Nanotechnology, and how neither technique would be sufficient on its own.

To demonstrate how a "tool" within one of these "nano tool kits" operates, we watched a few theoretical simulations from Nanorex. (Here are some other simulations from the Nanorex website.) The simulations provided some beautiful moving illustrations of how these tools are used to build components. We watched as a simulation of hydrogen atom was plucked from another molecule in real time.

Ralph explained how each "tool" in the toolkit has a "handle" end, and an "active end." "You don’t program the tool, you hold it into position," he said, as we watched the animation. "Once you selectively remove the hydrogen, you can use another tool that deposits carbon."

(Below: Ralph Merkle and Singularity U student Zubin Wadia discuss nanofactories after Ralph’s lecture.)


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