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Guest Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver


Sudden Development of Molecular Manufacturing


I'm currently investigating two topics. One is how to make the simplest possible nanoscale molecular manufacturing system. I think I've devised a version that can be developed with today's technology, but can be improved Development of molecular manufacturing technology probably will not be gradual, and will not allow time to react to incremental improvements.

It is often assumed that development must be gradual, but there are several points at which minor improvements to the technology will cause massive advances in capability. In other words, at some points, the capability of the technology can advance substantially without breakthroughs or even much R&D. These jumps in capability could happen quite close together, given the pre-design that a well-planned development program would certainly do. Advancing from laboratory demos all the way to megatons of easily designed, highly advanced products in a matter of months appears possible. Any policy that will be needed to deal with the implications of such products must be in place before the advances start.

The first jump in capability is exponential manufacturing. If a manufacturing system can build an identical copy, then the number of systems, and their mass and productivity, can grow quite rapidly.
However, the starting point is quite small; the first device may be one million-billionth of a gram (100 nanometers). It will take time for even exponential growth to produce a gram of manufacturing systems. If a copy can be built in a week, then it will take about a year to make the first gram. A better strategy will be to spend the next ten months in R&D to reduce the manufacturing time to one day, at which point it will take less than two months to make the first gram. And at that point, expanding from the first gram to the first ton will take only another three weeks.

It's worth pointing out here that nanoscale machinery is vastly more powerful than larger machinery. When a machine shrinks, its power density and functional density improve. Motors could be a million times more powerful than today's; computers could be billions of times more compact. So a ton of nano-built stuff is a lot more powerful than a ton of conventional product. Even though the products of tiny manufacturing systems will themselves be small, they will include computers and medical devices. A single kilogram of nanoscale computers would be far more powerful than the sum of all computers in existence today.

The second jump in capability is nanofactories—integrated manufacturing systems that can make large products with all the advantages of precise nanoscale machinery. It turns out that nanofactory design can be quite simple and scalable, meaning that it works the same regardless of the size. Given a manufacturing system that can make sub-micron blocks (“nanoblocks”), it doesn't take a lot of additional work to fasten those blocks together into a product. In fact, a product of any size can be assembled in a single plane, directly from blocks small enough to be built by single nanoscale manufacturing systems, because assembly speed increases as block size decreases. Essentially, a nanofactory is just a thin sheet of manufacturing systems fastened side by side. That sheet can be as large as desired without needing a re-design, and the low overhead means that a nanofactory can build its own mass almost as fast as a single manufacturing system. Once the smallest nanofactory has been built, kilogram-scale and ton-scale nanofactories can follow in a few weeks.

The third jump in capability is product design. If it required a triple Ph.D. in chemistry, physics, and engineering to design a nanofactory product, then the effects of nanofactories would be slow to develop. But if it required a triple Ph.D. in semiconductor physics, digital logic, and operating systems to write a computer program, the software industry would not exist. Computer programming is relatively easy because most of the complexity is hidden—encapsulated and abstracted within simple, elegant high-level commands. A computer programmer can invoke billions of operations with a single line of text. In the case of nanofactory product design, a good place to hide complexity is within the nanoblocks that are fastened together to make the product. A nanoblock designer might indeed need a triple Ph.D. However, a nanoblock can contain many millions of features—enough for motors, a CPU, programmable networking and connections, sensors, mechanical systems, and other high-level components.

Fastening a few types of nanoblocks together in various combinations could make a huge range of products. The product designer would not need to know how the nanoblocks worked—only what they did. A nanoblock is quite a bit smaller than a single human cell, and a planar-assembly nanofactory would impose few limits on how they were fastened together.

Design of a product could be as simple as working with a CAD program to specify volumes to be filled and areas to be covered with different types of nanoblocks.

Because the internal design of nanoblocks would be hidden from the product designer, nanoblock designs could be changed or improved without requiring product designers to be retrained. Nanoblocks could be designed at a functional level even before the first nanofactory could be built, allowing product designers to be trained in advance.
Similarly, a nanofactory could be designed in advance at the nanoblock level. Although simple design strategies will cost performance, [scaling laws] indicate that molecular-manufactured machinery will have performance to burn. Products that are revolutionary by today's standards, including the nanofactory itself, could be significantly less complex than either the software or the hardware that makes up a computer—even a 1970's-era computer.


The design of an exponential molecular manufacturing system will include many of the components of a nanofactory. The design of a nanofactory likewise will include components of a wide range of products. A project to achieve exponential molecular manufacturing would not need much additional effort to prepare for rapid creation of nanofactories and their highly advanced products.

Sudden availability of advanced products of all sizes in large quantity could be highly disruptive. It would confer a large military advantage on whoever got it first, even if only a few months ahead of the competition. This implies that molecular manufacturing technology could be the focus of a high-stakes arms race. Rapid design and production of products would upset traditional manufacturing and distribution.
Nanofactories would be simple enough to be completely automated—and with components small enough that this would be necessary. Complete automation implies that they will be self-contained and easy to use.

Nanofactory-built products, including nanofactories themselves, could be as hard to regulate as Internet file-sharing. These and other problems imply that wise policy, likely including some global-scale policy, will be needed to deal with molecular manufacturing. But if it takes only months to advance from 100-nanometer manufacturing systems to self-contained nanofactories and easily-designed revolutionary products, there will not be time to make wise policy once exponential manufacturing is achieved. We will have to start ahead of time.


Chris has studied nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing for more than a decade. After successful careers in software engineering and dyslexia correction, Chris co-founded the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology in 2002, where he is Director of Research. Chris holds an MS in Computer Science from Stanford University.

Copyright © 2004-2005 Chris Phoenix


The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology(TM) (CRN) is an affiliate of World Care(R), an international, non-profit, 501(c)3 organization. All donations to CRN are handled through World Care. The opinions expressed by CRN do not necessarily reflect those of World Care



The contents of this page, including the views expressed above, are the responsibility of the author. They do not represent the views or policies of Nano Tsunami Dot Com, except where explicitly stated.



Chris Phoenix

CRN Director of Research



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