The past, present and future of nanotechnology was explored this morning at the Gensler building as part of an on-going series provided by “Live Talks“.
This session featured author and “father of nanotechnology” Eric Drexler in conversation with engineer, entrepreneur, and innovation expert Krisztina Holly.
In 1986, Mr. Drexler pioneered the concept of nanotechnology in his first book, ” Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology “. At that time he introduced the concept of “atomically precise manufacturing (APM)” which would use a series of chemical reactions at the atomic level in which larger and more complex structures were built up, creating a macro level structure. Mr. Drexler is quick to point out that the popular view, which is not scientifically correct, of nanotechnology is one of moving and manipulating atoms and atomic structures. This would be analogous to viewing chemistry, which also works with atoms and molecules, as manipulating the underlying agents rather than controlling the process.
In the beginning, practical work by the researchers was focused on the material sciences. Science fiction and the media played this up for a variety of fantastical applications, which became ingrained in the publics’ mind for nanotechnology. Much like jetpacks, flying cars and personal robots – there have been some advances towards the fantastical, but much of the science is still lagging behind fiction.
The first experiments in nanotechnology were successful in manipulating tens and hundreds of atoms into a new, defined structure. This has progressed to millions of atoms and is on the path to many billions and trillions. Mr. Drexler compares this with the earliest stages of semiconductor manufacturing where single transistors were created. With the advances in lithography and fabrication processes, it’s now possible to include billions of transistors on a single device. This is as if an entire bank of computers were shrunk down to fit on a geometry the size of a fingernail.
The most promising advances today are being made in the area of DNA manipulation. As scientists have been able to understand the complexities of DNA, they have also been able to produce unique strands of materials. This has the practical use of creating an organic memory cell which has storage capacity far beyond current silicon solutions.
Parallels between the semiconductor industry and the emerging nanotechnology developments are very useful. We can now conceive of a factory on a chip and its mechanical parallel in the computing world. Instead of data bits, bytes and programming code, the nanotechnology factory has atoms, molecules, protein strands and structures. Atomically precise manufacturing brings physical objects to the same abstraction level as digital content creation.
At a macro level, 3D printing is the first commercial realization of nanotechnology. A common material, plastic, is inserted at one end of the machine and by supplying a minimal amount of electricity to heat the material and control the placement, it is possible to create a physical object. The size of the final object is also not limited to the buildable size of a single machine as it is also possible to create another machine to assemble the individual parts.
Nanotechnology was focused on the science that one day nearly all things could be made from the most common elements found in the earth’s crust. Using abundant materials such as copper, aluminum oxide, and silicon, along with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, it would be possible for nanotechnology machines to build everything and anything. This sparked the concept of “radical abundance” and Mr. Drexler’s most recent book, “.Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology will Change Civilization “.
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Common earth elements are available nearly everywhere in sufficient quantities to make both small and large scale nanotechnology production possible. In order to create something from the raw materials only requires a chemical reaction or electrical input. Coupling this together implies the possibility of creating a number of products based on per unit mass of the product, per unit of creation time, multiplied by the number of “factories”.
One underlying concept in creating a radical abundance of products is that of self replicating machines. Taking this one step further, each machine can create a smaller, more efficient version of itself. Think of a large industrial complex today that is required to produce an automobile – and also take into account the raw materials such as steel, glass and rubber that are provided to the automobile factory. Imagine reducing this to its most basic components. As the absolute size of the machinery shrinks, the speed at which it can operate increases. This is because a smaller machine has less mass to keep in movement and a shorter distance that all its internal components need to travel. As a generality, shrinking a machine by 10x results in a 10x increase in overall production speed; scaling this to the nanotech level, reducing the size of the machine by 1 million enables it operate a million times faster.
And the cost of manufacturing is ultimately reduced to the cost of raw materials and the power required to run the nanotech factory. A laptop computer could cost under $1, and a car under a few $100.
We’ll explore nanotechnology in coming articles to understand what this means for intellectual property, disruption of the manufacturing model and technology in general.
(Image Credit – Medicine World )
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