Volume 4, Issue 1 
May 2009

Productive Nanosystems as a Milestone Toward Geoethical Nanotechnology

James B. Lewis, Ph.D.

This article was submitted to the Journal on Geoethical Nanotechnology by Nanotechnology Consultant and Science Writer, James B. Lewis, Ph.D.

Dr. Lewis expertly discusses the growing field of nanotechnology, its current roadmap, and implementing manufacturing processes necessary to solving many of the world’s problems.

Nanotechnology could perhaps be described as the ultimate technological revolution. In its advanced form it will provide a practical and inexpensive way to manufacture any product of any size—from microscopic robots to giant space habitats, and from computers to steaks—by placing atoms into any arrangement required by the product design that is compatible with the laws of physics. The technological possibility to control the structure of matter on a very small scale—and ultimately to be able to place atoms where you want them—was first explored by Richard P. Feynman [1].

Further aspects and visionary implications of developing the ability to build by placing atoms where you want them, including technological immortality and immense material abundance, were described by K. Eric Drexler [2], who emphasized the huge consequences of developing such technology and popularized the name nanotechnology to describe it.


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Drexler’s visionary nanotechnology remains visionary twenty-three years later. However, something less ambitious—the ability to structure matter for technological purposes on a scale of 100 nanometers (a few hundred atoms) or less—is now called nanotechnology, and is already incorporated into hundreds of consumer products [3]. Incremental development of current nanotechnology will lead to increasingly useful applications. For example, nanoparticles for more intelligently targeted drug delivery and nanomaterials for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine should combine with advances in biotechnology to greatly improve the therapy of cancer and other diseases within the next five to ten years.

However, for nanotechnology to lead to technological immortality will require moving during the next few decades beyond our current abilities to engineer nanoparticles and nanomaterials to the ability to inexpensively produce large quantities of medical nanorobots—each of which would be a microscopic computer-controlled robot designed and built to atomic precision. Each nanorobot could perform some type of medical procedure at the cellular or molecular level. A vast network of trillions of these microscopic cell repair machines, of many different varieties designed for a multitude of functions, could monitor the molecular communications among and within a patient's cells and tissues, and make such changes as would be needed to optimize vibrant health and longevity. Robert A. Freitas Jr. [4] has pioneered the design of medical nanorobots and recently described the prospects for using nanorobots for radical life extension [5]. The confidence that such nanorobots and other complex nanomachinery are possible and will have the capabilities predicted comes from physics-based modeling of such systems, pioneered by K. Eric Drexler [6].

imageThe actual production of such medical nanorobots, however, will require the development of a manufacturing technology that does not yet exist—the ability to inexpensively manufacture arbitrarily complex products designed around specific arrangements of atoms. Such a capability—the original vision of Feynman and Drexler— is variously termed molecular nanotechnology, molecular manufacturing, atomically precise manufacturing, or atomically precise productive nanosystems.

Currently the ability to inexpensively manufacture useful, complex atomically precise products lies exclusively with biology—not with technology. Living organisms—from bacteria to redwood trees to people—are extremely complex systems of atomically precise building blocks of a few very specific types—molecules of DNA, RNA, proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and their composites. The ability of living cells to build intricate structures far exceeds the capabilities of nanotechnology today; however, the range of products that can be built has been greatly constrained by the initial chemical choices made very early in the evolution of life—choices based upon the need for self-assembling systems that could evolve by variation and natural selection.

The great advantage of living systems as manufacturing systems is that these manufacturing systems can easily manufacture copies of themselves. Whether the system in question is a single cell dividing into two, a great oak producing acorns from which more great oaks can grow, or a female blue whale giving birth to a calf, the system uses energy and some feedstock molecules of varying complexity, and follows the molecular instructions in its genome that specify subsystems of precise arrangements of atoms, to produce a new organism based on minor variations in the arrangements of atoms that constituted the parent(s). The potential for exponential growth arises when the atomically precise manufacturing systems are also assembled from atomically precise components so that the manufacturing system can make more manufacturing systems using only energy, atomically precise building blocks, and instructions.

Atomically precise building blocks can be prepared from an appropriate source of atoms—the ultimate standardized parts. In an ecosystem of living organisms, those near the top of the food chain have complex nutritional requirements while those at the base decompose waste or use the simplest environmental molecules as building blocks. In a molecular manufacturing ecology, some molecular machine systems will process waste and abundant small molecules into convenient building blocks for molecular manufacturing systems. Given abundant energy from the sun and a copious source of atoms from junk, waste, dirt, and asteroidal debris, molecular manufacturing systems producing an exponential increase in manufacturing capability will provide the material wherewithal to create a utopia on this planet and its vicinity, and to eventually reengineer the universe to support the unlimited expansion of consciousness.

Getting from here to there

Accordingly, the challenge is to get from the limited nanotech capabilities of today to an advanced nanotechnology of molecular manufacturing. Today’s nanotechnology uses incremental improvements in processing technology, materials science, chemistry, and biotechnology to accomplish nanomanufacturing, in which the structures of products are increasingly well-controlled at the scale of one to a hundred nanometers—the scale of a few to a few hundred atoms. To the extent to which small or simple structures are controlled to atomic precision, today’s nanotechnology relies upon the same principles of self-assembly that are used by biology, but lacks the extensive hierarchical self-assembly that biological systems use to build ever more complex structures from simpler self-assembled structures. Also unlike biology, today’s nanotechnology lacks the molecular machinery that translates the immense information about form and function encoded in the genome into functional arrangements of atoms and molecules.

Tomorrow’s advanced nanotechnology of molecular manufacturing will use molecular machine systems to directly position atoms and small groups of atoms to build quickly and inexpensively with atomic precision. Self-assembly will be supplemented by atomically precise positional assembly (or mechanosynthesis), in which reactive molecules are mechanically positioned so that reaction does not occur at other chemically similar sites, and so that reactants are brought together in a favorable orientation for reaction to occur, perhaps aided by the application of mechanical force. Advanced systems will use machine-phase chemistry, in which the trajectories of very reactive species are controlled to atomic precision in a vacuum environment to exclude unwanted species.

Over the past 20 years Drexler [6] and others [7] have addressed various aspects of the challenge of developing advanced nanotechnology, but a roadmap for the process is not available.


Molecular Manufacturing


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[1] “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” Richard P. Feynman, December 1959
http://www.its.caltech.edu/~feynman/plenty.html [accessed Feb. 7, 2009]

[2] Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler, originally published by Anchor/Doubleday in 1986. Translations and full text available at http://e-drexler.com/d/06/00/EOC/EOC_Cover.html [accessed Feb. 7, 2009]

[3] By one authoritative inventory of consumer products currently on the market that are claimed by their manufacturer to incorporate nanotechnology, "there are currently 807 products, produced by 420 companies, located in 21 countries."
http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/consumer/ [accessed Feb. 7, 2009]

[4] “Robert A. Freitas Jr., J.D., published the first detailed technical design study of a medical nanorobot ever published in a peer-reviewed mainstream biomedical journal and is the author of Nanomedicine, the first book-length technical discussion of the medical applications of nanotechnology and medical nanorobotics.” http://rfreitas.com/ [accessed Feb. 7, 2009]

[5] "Nanotechnology and Radically Extended Life Span" Robert A. Freitas Jr. Life Extension Magazine, Jan. 2009. http://www.lef.org/magazine/mag2009/... [accessed Feb. 5, 2009]

[6] Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation K. Eric Drexler, originally published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. in 1992. http://e-drexler.com/d/06/00/Nanosystems/toc.html [accessed Feb. 7, 2009]. “Revolutionizing the Future of Technology” K. Eric Drexler (Revised 2006), on the EurekAlert website of the AAAS. http://www.eurekalert.org/... [accessed Feb. 16, 2009]. “Productive nanosystems: the physics of molecular fabrication” K. Eric Drexler, Physics Education 40: 339-346 (2005). http://e-drexler.com/...  [accessed Feb. 16, 2009]. See also Drexler’s web site http://e-drexler.com/ and blog http://metamodern.com/.

[7] For a very substantial overview, see Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle (Landes Bioscience, 2004). http://www.MolecularAssembler.com/KSRM.htm [accessed Feb. 16, 2009]. See also the Nanofactory Collaboration web site http://www.molecularassembler.com/Nanofactory/ [accessed Feb. 16, 2009].



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