There’s a revolution around the corner. In the not so distant future, we will learn how to use nanotechnology to make everything we need – and more. We will then be able to build a car atom by atom, and the end result will be cheaper, faster and better. Sounds like science fiction? Not according to Eric Drexler, the man who has put nanotechnology on the map.
It sounds too good to be true, but ‘Radical abundance’, the title of Drexler’s latest book, is just what he promises. Unlimited production at a very low cost, hardly any pollution and no need for rare materials. And he claims we can fix global warming. ‘Yes, it’s a long list, and it might sound ridiculous, but if you look at the physics, it makes sense. You can make pretty much anything.’ This week, he shared his vision in a lecture for Studium Generale at the University of Groningen.
The solution to all our problems lies in Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM), a cumbersome term that was coined for a reason. ‘It was originally called nanotechnology, but that was too broad and flexible. These days, all sorts of things get called “nanotechnology”, which takes the focus away from what it is really about.’
APM means, simply put, that we start building things from the atomic level. Molecular machines manipulate atoms and join them together to form larger building blocks. Slightly larger machines join these blocks together to form bigger units and so on.
If we start with atoms it is possible to create new materials that are far superior to what we use now: construction materials that are much lighter and yet stronger; houses, airplanes, cars and computers with vastly improved capabilities.
Sitting in the lobby of the University Hotel, Drexler looks calm and composed. Not a wild-eyed guru, but a scientist who has done the numbers, and is convinced he knows the way forward. There is an air of sadness about him, as people don’t seem to be listening.
In his book, Drexler describes how he developed the prospect of Atomically Precise Manufacturing as a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1970s. His award-winning thesis (on solar sails, made with something like atomic precision) was published as a book, but it was his 1989 book ‘Engines of Creation’, in which he put forward the idea of APM and explained its promise, that brought him to the attention of a wider audience.
The idea of making things atom by atom caught on in the 1990s and inspired a large Federal funding scheme in the US. However, the scheme was hijacked by lobby groups who merely wanted to market their ‘nano’ creams and ‘nano’ window cleaners.
On top of this, Drexler’s scientific colleagues launched a counterattack, claiming that APM was impossible. ‘That’s nonsense’, he explains patiently. ‘It’s true that atoms can react in many ways, most of them unwanted. But that’s no different from the problems chemists face when they want to synthesize a specific compound. The problem is not how to make certain groups react, but how to prevent unwanted reactions.’ And the laws of physics tell him this can be done. It’s as simple as that.
In other words: we do not yet have APM, but it is possible, so we should draw up a plan about how to realize it. ‘In recent decades we have learned a lot about molecular machines.’ Indeed, the first molecular motor, the first molecular four-wheel-drive car and more have already been built at the University of Groningen.
‘The thing is that these things were built by scientists, who want to know how everything works. Scientists focus on what we don’t know.’ But the way forward for APM is to focus on what we do know and put this to use in a practical manner.
What is lacking in Drexler’s eyes is a focused effort to bring together different molecular parts to build a real nano-factory. ‘We can’t make anything with the precision I envision, but we could use the molecular tools we do have to make better tools.’ Drexler proposes using the current generation of not-so-accurate nano-machines to build sturdier ones that give much more control over the world of atoms.
‘We know from biology that protein-based machines work. We have foldamers, polymers that fold in specific ways and give you control at the nano-scale. What we now need is real problem-driven research to improve these machines.’ And, he says, once we have improved control at the atomic scale, things will become much easier.
This is why he predicts that once we have learned the basics APM will take off at an exponential rate. But how can we master these basics? If he were given full control of a research project, how would he proceed? ‘I’d take the engineering approach: identify what we already have, bring people together from different disciplines – who now often don’t know what’s happening in other fields – and define the problems we’re still facing.’
All this could be done with very little extra money. ‘A few millions perhaps, to improve software platforms for molecular design. I worked for a firm which was doing just that, but it went under in the financial crisis.’
And yet, he seems to be fighting an uphill battle. It doesn’t seem to bother him, although there is an underlying bitterness in his book at how his ideas have been ridiculed in recent years. It was claimed, for example, that you can’t control atoms the way he wants.
True enough, Drexler can’t give one example of the kind of precision manufacturing he is writing about. ‘But there’s a reason for that’, he says. ‘Imagine asking what the largest sample of moon rock was in the 1950s. That’s the wrong question. The right question would have been: how big are the rockets that we need in order to collect moon rock and how can we build them?’
Drexler was inspired by the looming crisis predicted by the Club of Rome in their report The Limits to Growth: a Global Challenge. He wants to make the world a better place by providing unlimited resources. With APM, we could easily build scrubbers to remove the excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, he writes in his book. What is his advice to students who share his drive? ‘Choose a programme that gives you a good grasp of physics and chemistry but also teaches you to think like an engineer.’
More information on the Eric Drexler website. Drexler also features in this video from the Amsterdam Science Café.
K. Eric Drexler:
Radical abundance , How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, $25 hardcover
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