235. MOLECULAR MANUFACTURING AND SUSTAINABILITY
In the past I've written for POD about nanotech solar cells and futurism. Today I'd like to revisit both with a more in-depth look at one application of Nanotechnology which is very relevant to Peak Oil and the wider energy and environmental situation: Molecular Manufacturing.
Molecular Manufacturing basically means building products atom by atom. This could done with countless tiny machines ("assemblers") contained in a larger device called a Nanofactory:
A small nanofactory
With these sorts of machines (described in detail here), virtually any product could be made from simple elements like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, and recycled into something new with no loss of quality. All products will be atomically precise and completely free of defects. They can be designed on computer and assembled anywhere from a data file.
Obviously this comes with dangers, not least the ability to make weapons. Organizations like the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) and the Foresight Institute are considering ways to regulate this, such as with integrated security and an approval system for safe designs. The purpose of this post isn't to speculate about the safety of Molecular Manufacturing, although that's a very important issue. Instead, similarly to Omnitir's space industrialization articles, I would like to point out just a few of the effects Molecular Manufacturing could have on the energy and resources situation in the near- and medium-term future.
Like space industrialization, Molecular Manufacturing sounds "science-fictiony" but it actually isn't. The principles have been laid out very thoroughly in books such as Nanosystems more than ten years ago, and scientists are steadily working towards realizing the concept. It is almost certainly possible to build a Nanofactory within 30 years, and CRN is concerned that a $10 billion project started today could develop one in less than a decade (the RepRap project is working on macro-scale self-assembling machines already). Once Nanofactories are sufficiently advanced to manufacture more Nanofactories, they could become commonplace within a matter of months.
Almost anything that is possible with today's material science will be much cheaper and of much better quality using Molecular Manufacturing. The most obvious effect of this for the energy situation is a dramatic cost breakthrough in renewable energy. In New Solar Cells I talked about solar panels based on current nanotechnology can be rolled, folded or painted onto surfaces. Using a Nanofactory, you could manufacture these, or any other kind of renewable energy device, at home for virtually no cost. Efficiency could be improved several fold. Solar panels could be integrated into every surface. Energy storage systems, from flywheels to hydrogen, will be vastly improved, allowing renewable energy to decisively trump fossil fuels (see Powering Civilization Sustainably).
Molecular Manufacturing will also deliver big improvements in efficiency. Ultra-lightweight carbon fibre materials could be made more cheaply than today's steel frames, giving a big efficiency boost to vehicles of all kinds. Atomically precise surfaces would have ultra-low friction, like these nanotube bearings.
We will probably also see a cost breakthrough in the affordability of accessing and operating in space. While space industrialization is already possible with today's materials, the vastly stronger and cheaper materials allowed by Molecular Manufacturing will make it much easier. Further down the line we could develop self-repairing spacecraft and, along with biotechnology, the ability to synthesize food during long-distance trips, and on Earth. With diamond-strength carbon nanotubes we could even build a space elevator. These things may sound silly today, but the technology that can bring them to life is just round the corner.
A space elevator?
Hopefully I have convinced you that Molecular Manufacturing could be a major factor in our energy and resources future. The ability to make anything out of endlessly recyclable base materials would allow the whole world to enjoy a high standard of living in a completely sustainable way, requiring a major readjustment of Club of Rome-type scenarios. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) environmental organizations have largely ignored advanced nanotechnology. I would love to see them recognize it as the major part of our future that it is, and address both its risks and potential benefits. Molecular Manufacturing is not an "alternative" to a sustainable future. It's one of the technologies that can help us get there.
Powering Civilization Sustainably
Amory Lovins on Nanotechnology
Unbounding the Future
Some critics such as Richard Smalley believe that that Molecular Manufacturing is not possible because of the volatility of chemicals at such a small level, and also because of the so-called "sticky fingers" problem of manipulating tiny things. Of course, nature perfected molecular assembly long ago in living cells, and many scientists believe that the problems can be overcome. But if you have any technical objections to Molecular Manufacturing feel free to share them in the comments.