Guest Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver


Living Off-Grid With Molecular Manufacturing


Living off-grid can be a challenge. When energy and supplies no longer arrive through installed infrastructure, they must be collected and stored locally, or done without. Today this is done with lead-acid batteries, expensive water-handling systems, and so on. All these systems have limited capacities. Conversely, living on-grid creates a distance between production and consumption that makes it easy to ignore the implications of excessive resource usage. Molecular manufacturing can make off-grid living more practical, with clean local production and easy managing of local resources.

For this essay, I will assume a molecular manufacturing technology based on mechanosynthesis of carbon lattice. A bio-inspired nanotechnology would share many of the same advantages. Carbon lattice (including diamond) is about 100 times as strong as steel per volume, and carbon is one-sixth as dense. This implies that a structure made of carbon would weigh at most 1% of the weight of a steel structure. This is important for several reasons, including cost and portability. However, in most things made of steel, much of the material is resisting compression, which requires far more bulk than resisting the same amount of tension. (It's easier to crumple a steel bar than to pull it apart.) When construction in fine detail doesn't cost any extra, it's possible to convert compressive stress to tensile stress by using trusses or pressurized tanks. So it'll often be safe to divide current product weight by 1,000. The cost of molecular-manufactured carbon lattice might be $20 per kg ($10 per pound) at today's electricity prices, and drop rapidly as nanofactories are improved and nano-manufactured solar cells are deployed. This makes it very competitive with steel as a structural material.

A two or three order of magnitude improvement in material properties, and a six order of magnitude improvement in cost per feature and compactness of motors and computers, allows the design of completely new kinds of products. For example, a large tent or a small inflatable boat may weigh 10 kilograms. But building with advanced materials, this is equal to 1,000 or even 10,000 kilograms: a house or a yacht. Likewise, a small airplane or seaplane might weigh 1,000 kg today. A 10 kg full-sized collapsible airplane is not implausible; today's hang gliders weigh only 30-40 kg, and they're built out of aluminum and nylon. Such an airplane would be easy to store and cheap to build, and could of course be powered by solar-generated fuel.

Today, equipment and structures must be maintained and their surfaces protected. This generates a lot of waste and uses a lot of paint and labor. But as the saying goes, diamonds are forever. This is because in a diamond, all the atoms are strongly bonded to each other, and oxygen (even with the help of salt) can't pull one loose to start a chemical reaction. Ultraviolet light can be blocked by a thin surface coating molecularly bonded to the structure during construction. So diamondoid structures would require no maintenance to prevent corrosion. Also, due to the strongly bonded surfaces, it appears that nanoscale machines will be immune to ordinary wear. A machine could be designed to run without maintenance for a century.

Can molecular manufacturing build all the needed equipment? It appears so; carbon is an extremely versatile atom. It can be a conductor, semiconductor, or insulator; opaque or transparent; it can make inorganic (and indigestible) substances like diamond and graphite, but with a few other readily available atoms, it can make incredibly complex and diverse organic chemicals. And don't forget that a complete self-contained molecular manufacturing system can be quite small. So any needed equipment or products could be made on the spot, out of chemicals readily available from the local environment. A self-contained factory sufficient to supply a family could be the size of a microwave oven.

When a product is no longer wanted, it can be burned cleanly, being made entirely of light atoms. It is worth noting that extraction of rare minerals from ecologically or politically sensitive areas would become largely unnecessary.

Power collection and storage would require a lot fewer resources. A solar cell only has to be a few microns thick. Lightweight expandable or inflatable structures would make installation easy and potentially temporary. Energy could be stored as hydrogen. The solar cells and the storage equipment could be built by the on-site nanofactory. The same goes for solar water distillers, and tanks and greenhouses for growing fish, seaweed, algae, or hydroponic gardening. Water can also be purified electrically and recovered from greenhouse air, and direct chemical food production using cheap microfluidics will probably be an early post-nanofactory development. With food, fuel, and equipment all available locally, there would be very little need to ship supplies from centralized production facilities, and water use per person could be much less than with open-air agriculture and today's problems with handling wastewater.

The developed nations today have a massive and probably unsustainable ecological footprint. Because production is so decentralized, it is hard to observe the impact of consumer choices. And because only a few areas of land are convenient for transportation or ideal for agriculture, unhealthy patterns of land use have developed. Economies of scale encourage large infrastructures. But nano-built equipment benefits from other economies, so off-site production and distribution will become less efficient than local productivity. Someone living off-grid will be able literally to see their own ecological footprint, simply by looking at the land area they have covered with solar cells and greenhouses.

Cheap sensors will allow monitoring of any unintentional pollution--though there will be fewer pollution sources with clean manufacturing of maintenance-free products.

Cheap high-bandwidth communication without wires would require a new infrastructure, but it would not be hard to build one. Simply sending up small airplanes with wireless networking equipment would allow wireless communication for hundreds of miles.

Incentive for theft might decrease, since people could more quickly and easily build what they want for themselves rather than stealing other people's homemade goods.

Molecular manufacturing should make it very easy to disconnect from today's industrial grid. Even with relatively primitive (early) molecular manufacturing, people could have far better quality of life off-grid than in today's slums, while doing significantly less ecological damage. Areas that are difficult to live in today could become viable living space. Although this would increase the spread of humans over the globe, it would reduce the use of intensive agriculture, centralized energy production, and transportation; the ecological tradeoffs appear favorable. (With careful monitoring of waste streams, this argument may even apply to ocean living.)

Everything written here also could apply to displaced persons. Instead of refugee camps where barely adequate supplies are delivered from outside and crowding leads to increased health problems, relatively small amounts of land would allow each family (or larger social group) to be self-sufficient. This would not mitigate the tragedy of losing their homes, but would avoid compounding the tragedy by imposing the substandard or even life-threatening living conditions of today's refugee camps.

Of course, this essay has only considered the technical aspects of off-grid living. The practical feasibility depends on a variety of social and political issues. Many people enjoy living close to neighbors. Various commercial interests may not welcome the prospect of people withdrawing from the current consumer lifestyle. Owners of nanofactory technology may charge licensing fees too high to permit disconnection from the money system. Some environmental groups may be unwilling to see large-scale settlement of new land areas or the ocean, even if the overall ecological tradeoff were positive. But the possibility of self-sufficient off-grid living would take some destructive pressure off of a variety of overpopulated and over-consuming societies. Although it is not a perfect alternative, it appears to be preferable in many instances to today's ways of living and using resources.

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

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 Chris Phoenix


Chris Phoenix

CRN Director of Research