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Molecular Manufacturing and Technology Policy: Reframing the Big Issues

K. Eric Drexler*

Institute for Molecular Manufacturing
Palo Alto, CA 94301 USA

This is an abstract for a presentation given at the
Sixth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology.
There will be a link from here to the full article when it is available on the web.

 

Expanding technological capabilities affect issues ranging from economic productivity and health care to climatic change. Strategic decisions regarding these issues are inevitably shaped by models of future technological capabilities. Current models stem partly from trend extrapolation, partly from tacit assumptions of stasis, and partly from goals articulated by established research communities.

A research community is now forming around the goal of molecular manufacturing. Existing theoretical work and simple physical arguments can be used to estimate the likelihood of its success and some of the capabilities that will result. These capabilities are sufficiently large (changing key technological parameters by orders of magnitude) and sufficiently broad (applying to the full range of physical technologies) that the currently dominant models of future capabilities appear grossly inaccurate. Continued acceptance of these older models apparently stems not from a considered rejection of the alternative, but from habit and inertia.

Any reasonably accurate model must accommodate the basic consequences of a mature molecular manufacturing technology. These include large quantitative and qualitative improvements in materials, computation, transportation, energy supply, biological instrumentation, and medicine. Further, the anticipated technological infrastructure will emulate biological systems in producing intricate molecular systems, in bulk, at a cost of tens of cents per kilogram.

A few examples will suffice to illustrate the magnitude and breadth of the changes anticipated from molecular manufacturing technology (MMT):

In current planar microelectronics, the number of atoms per device is ~1011, even omitting the full thickness of the substrate. Conservative designs for MMT-enabled computational systems exploit three-dimensional structure and atomic precision to give systems with ~102 atoms per device. This ~109 improvement carries through to deliverable computational capacity in desktop systems.

Given the known mechanical properties of diamond and graphite, MMT will enable the construction of aerospace structures having masses (for a given size and strength) roughly 1/50 of those in current practice. Augmented by lower production costs, this points a drop in the cost of spaceflight by a factor of better than 1/100.

Scenarios for energy use and climate change assume continued reliance on fossil fuels. The production of similar fuels from water, CO2, and sunlight is at present impractical because the required devices are either costly or inefficient. MMT-enabled processes are well suited to the required chemical transformations, and more advanced MMT will remove the cost barrier, producing (for example) photovoltaic stick-on film at a cost below $0.10 per square meter, and mechanically suitable for road resurfacing.

The combination of expanded abilities and reduced costs underlying these examples stems from the nature of the manufacturing process. It will provide a driving force for change on a scale large enough to invalidate many of the assumptions shaping current debates on technology policy.


*Corresponding Address:
K. Eric Drexler
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing
555 Bryant St. Ste. 253, Palo Alto, CA 94301 USA
tel 650-917-1120, fax 650-917-1123
E-mail: drexler@imm.org; Web: http://www.imm.org/DrexlerCV.html



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