free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 235. MOLECULAR MANUFACTURING AND SUSTAINABILITY

Monday, February 13, 2006


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
Green Nanotechnology
Amory Lovins on Nanotechnology
Unbounding the Future
Non-linear thinking

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.
-- by Roland


At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 5:22:00 AM PST, Blogger Jan-Willem Bats said...


The late Richard Smalley took up an indefensible position against MNT, after having flipflopped positions on the issue several times (going from being enthusiastic to pessimistic regarding the feasibility).

He kept attacking ideas that were never proposed (straw men), and he was unfamiliar with some very essential scientific publications of more than 20 years old.

The debate between Smalley and Drexler, that was supposed to be scientific, was ended by Smalley by accusing Drexler of 'scaring our children' with grey goo scenarios.

As you have written yourself, Drexlerian nanotech has been calculated in depth. As theoretical and experimental evidence keeps mounting, the opponents will go through the familiar 3 (or 4, depending on who you talk to) phases of acception.

At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 8:04:00 AM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

is this a post by JD or Roland? The style seems more "Rolandish" :D

anywho... i rarely doubt our abilities to achieve amazing things through science. i've been reading about nano-technology for many years (way more than 10; fyi, the term nanotechnology was coined in the early 70s and the idea of molecular assembly was suggested by richard feynman as long ago as the late 50s.)

my doubts come from our inability to accept world changing science at a reasonable pace.

an obvious example: genetics. we've actually had the technology to achieve certain genetic engineering feats long ago but have been slowed by governments, religions, and public mistrust.

while genetics is on the surface a lot more "personal", once the general public groks nanotech, we will see a lot of the same energy we see daily in the anti-genetics movement applied.

as we begin to play with the building blocks of life and the elements themselves we enter an area that many will oppose with great fervor.

so in my head i tend to take a scientist's prediction at how long before a nanofactory may exist, multiply it by 2 for optimism and another 2 for red tape and opposition...

why not write an article on how to educate the public in a way that these sorts of things are seen as natural progression of science instead of how they are perceived by the majority of the world, scary and wrong.

At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 8:39:00 AM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

why not write an article on how to educate the public in a way that these sorts of things are seen as natural progression of science instead of how they are perceived by the majority of the world, scary and wrong.

this was meant tongue in cheek but i realize it didn't come across as souch. in my opinion, getting everyone on the same page to persue noble and long term goals is the greatest human challenge. much greater (not just because it is a superset) than the challenges of climate change, peak oil, and overpopulation.

At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 9:16:00 AM PST, Blogger The Masked Lemming said...

JD, The Doomers have gotten to Deffeyes!!! He says we're going back to the stone age!!! We need you more than ever to debunk this!!! ahahahahhhh

At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 11:35:00 AM PST, Blogger sameu said...

I too believe in nanotechnology
I'm not very up to date with the possibilities and problems of nanatech nowadays
But I was wondering. Breaking bonds, reorganising atoms, going from a lot of entropy to lesser entropy, costs energy, right

and as far as I know the laws of thermodynamics say you can fabricate everything but you can't make energy

Maybe it can produce stuff in a manner that's less engerydemanding, like solarcells, which would be great

But wouldn't this rather be marginal?

At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 1:15:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Hey everyone ... yes it is me who wrote the post, don't know what's going on there. :-)

Popmonkey, I agree that there is a great challenge in both making nanotech safe and making it accepted. The work of organisations like CRN and Foresight are doing great work. But if you look at genetics, it hasn't really been slowed that much by ethical debates. The human genome project was finished ahead of schedule, and things that almost everyone supports, like IVF, are paving the way towards future advances.

Also, people don't have the same resistance to nanotech as biotech because it's not "playing with life", which is what a lot of the public is most wary of. Still, we have a fine line to tread between squashing progress and causing disaster with insufficient regulation.

Sameu, a nanofactory does use energy but it's much more efficient than normal manufacturing. You don't have to dig up huge quantities of raw materials, transport them and put them together in large factories. Normal manufacturing is just putting atoms together, but it does it in a very crude and inefficient way because we are so big. :-)

The other thing is, once a sufficiently advanced nanofactory is made it can make more nanofactories, and those can make more ... in this way, huge projects (such as a large number of solar panels) can be accomplished quite quickly, and all the materials reused afterwards. And if the first thing every new nanofactory makes is a few kilograms of solar panels, those can recoup all the energy used to make it. (Products will be much lighter with MM too)

At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 2:33:00 PM PST, Blogger JD said...

Hey everyone ... yes it is me who wrote the post, don't know what's going on there.

I'm sorry Roland!! I had a brain fart while I was posting. I've fixed it now. Profuse apologies my friend!!

At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 4:59:00 PM PST, Blogger Omnitir said...

Great post Roland, I’ve been hoping you would write more about nanotech :)

Nanotech has so much potential for the near future that it boggles the mind. Actually, I think that the fact that many doomers hastily dismiss it’s potential (because it sounds science fictiony) instead of attempting to scientifically debunk expected developments, says a lot about both the remarkable potential of nanotech, and the doomer mentality.

I think the expected advances in energy storage through nanotech is one field where powerful solutions are possible. Imagine the possibilities when you can cost effectively manufacture a material that is not only ultra lightweight and strong, but also capable of safely storing and transmitting large amounts of energy. You could build SUV sized EV’s that are lightweight, ultra strong, where the panelling itself is the energy storage, and the paint is the primary source of power supply.

The CRN page you link to in the post has an interesting concept; high-altitude lightweight auto-piloted aircraft covered in nanotech based solar collectors and energy storage technology, which briefly touch down every few days to deposit their energy, could theoretically provide the full electrical requirements for the entire Earth. I see this concept as essentially a low altitude version of space power satellites.

At Monday, February 13, 2006 at 10:59:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

I'm sorry Roland!! I had a brain fart while I was posting. I've fixed it now. Profuse apologies my friend!!

That's alright, don't worry! Do you mind if I post a copy on my blog?

Thanks for the kind words Omnitir. You're quite right, and I really think both doomers and environmentally-concerned people in general are doing a big disservice by dismissing nanotech so easily. It has a huge potential to either help or hurt the environment, and if you ignore it you're just cannot have a holistic view of the future.

Misuse of nanotech worries me far more than global warming or peak oil. Still, I'm quite optimistic (provided North Korea doesn't develop it first) that Molecular Manufacturing will be developed and deployed responsibly. And then solving our energy problems will be as easy as making a steak dinner ...


At Tuesday, February 14, 2006 at 1:02:00 AM PST, Blogger JD said...

Do you mind if I post a copy on my blog?

Of course not. It's your baby. ;-)
Why don't you post a link to your blog so folks know where it is?

At Tuesday, February 14, 2006 at 3:16:00 AM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Thanks! You can see my blog at

I also have another blog at

At Monday, March 6, 2006 at 2:25:00 AM PST, Blogger The Duke said...

No one who is actually in nanotechnology thinks molecular manufacturing is possible.

The proponents of it aren't taken seriously by anyone in the establishment(search for the Chris Phoenix debate, they're begging for attention to unscientific claims)

It would be lovely if the nanobot idea were plausible or even on the design table, but it's not either at this point.

At Monday, March 6, 2006 at 2:31:00 AM PST, Blogger The Duke said...

Another thing, as far as I am aware most preeminent nanotechnologists view the foresight institude, CRN, Drexler, Merkle, et al.

The only exception is Freitas, he seems to have done some work that could be considered respectable, although most of it is speculative.

No one in this group of "nanoboosters" have actually done any -nanotechnology-, unfortunately. They have written -amazing- exercises in mechanical engineering, but that is all they have accomplished.

As mechanical engineering artists, perhaps, they are unrivalled. As scientists, they are unnoticed.

Read the book Nanocosm or talk to anyone working on the subject in an actual university. MNT and the nanoboosters are to nanotechnology what the fans are to a professional sport: spectators.


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