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Feasibility Arguments for Molecular Nanotechnology

Perhaps you've heard of MEMS, microelectromechanical systems, a field being invested in heavily by governments and corporations. In MEMS, the components are usually between 10 and 100 microns in size. Using MEMS, you can build gear systems smaller than a dust mite. The military is looking into MEMS to build spy-bots the size of the smallest bugs.

Beyond MEMS there is NEMS, nanoelectromechanical systems, an area scientists and engineers are just beginning to investigate. NEMS are about a 1000 times smaller than MEMS, with components between 10 and 100 nanometers in size. With NEMS, you could build a complex machine the size of a red blood cell or smaller. Transhumanists hope to use NEMS to improve our health and expand our sensory and motor capabilities.

The Holy Grail of nanotechnology is designing a NEMS that can build other NEMS. This goal has been called molecular nanotechnology (MNT), and it is a topic of controversy within the nanotechnology community. Some futurists and scientists believe MNT is impossible, while others consider it very likely.

Here are some feasibility arguments for molecular nanotechnology:

1) We already have working examples of molecular nanotechnology: living things. Every organism depends on nanoscale assemblers called ribosomes to synthesize all their parts, including copies of the ribosomes themselves. Specialized organelles, like the Golgi apparatus, may process these proteins further. This is similar to an assembly line in a factory, where a series of tools perform different collaborative functions to achieve a predetermined outcome. Nanotechnologists seek to duplicate this scheme in an inorganic medium.

2) Positional placement of individual atoms has already been demonstrated numerous times. In 1999, researchers at Cornell University synthesized single molecules of iron carbonyl (FeCO) from iron and CO2 precursors using an exceptionally precise STM. What is lacking here is not a proof of principle, but the need to miniaturize the manipulation apparatus and make it more reliable. This is primarily an engineering challenge, albeit a difficult one.

3) At the nanoscale, proteins tend to be floppy, while an inorganic material like diamond can be relatively rigid. In the 1992 book Nanosystems, nanotechnologist Eric Drexler offers numerous designs for a broad range of diamondoid nanoscale machine components, including motors, generators, pistons, rods, interlocking structures, gears, bearings, belt-and-roller systems, rachets, clutches, sorters, and many others. Drexler shows how these systems are physically feasible and could work at acceptable speeds without overheating. In the 16 years since its publication, no one has yet found a mathematical error in Nanosystems.

4) Mechanosynthesis -- the synthesis of chemicals through mechanical action alone -- is a desired capability for a "dry" molecular nanotechnology system that uses NEMS to build NEMS. As mentioned above, researchers have already been able to synthesize individual molecules from atomic constituents. What is needed next is to extend these techniques to carbon. In the next decade, nanotechnologists hope to demonstrate diamondoid mechanosynthesis -- the mechanical synthesis of complex carbon structures. Many thousands of hours of computing time has already been spent simulating diamondoid mechanosynthesis, and experimental work is just beginning.

5) Many rudimentary molecular machines and components have already been built. These include Nadrian Seeman's DNA walker robot (2004) and other nanomechanical devices, the Rice University nanocar (2005), molecular logic gates, and more. Some nanomachine components, like the bacterial flagellar motor, already come pre-built from nature. Many nanotechnologists see inspiration from biology as key. Obviously, there is no lack of available nanoscale machines -- the challenge is putting them together into reliable and reprogrammable systems.

As we can see, we are much closer to the goal of molecular nanotechnology than we were only 10 years ago. Going back further, to 20 years ago, very few scientists could have even imagined what we'd be achieving now. Our goal for the future should be to push the envelope of nanotechnology research, devoting more money to research in molecular nanotechnology, while carefully studying the potential benefits and risks that could arise from a major breakthrough in the area.

See also: Six challenges for molecular nanotechnology, by EPSRC Senior Strategic Advisor Richard Jones.

Comments (45) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Michael, I’m not going to reply at length, but you should be aware of two points. Firstly, the examples of biological nanotechnology and the success of work on DNA nanotechnology by Seeman and others tells us nothing about whether MNT is possible, since the operating principles of soft and wet nanotechnology are quite different to the proposals of MNT. With respect to the calculations in MNT, you should know that the numerical estimates of the rubbing friction of hydrogen terminated diamond surfaces you get from the formulae in Nanosystems are several orders of magnitude lower than the values obtained by Judith Harrison’s molecular dynamics simulations. This isn’t a “numerical error”, of course, it’s a result of an incomplete formulation of the relevant physics.

  2. Thanks Richard. Of course, if hard MNT proves unworkable, then researchers will pursue a wet version. This isn’t “MNT” as usually defined, but it could still involve mass manufacturing with atomic precision. (No mechanosynthesis necessarily required.) Arguably, synthetic life is a form of productive wet nanotechnology.

    I’ll look into Judith Harrison’s work, thanks.

  3. As usual I do not understand the limitation of molecular nanotechnology to dry – diamondoid only.

    The recent roadmap to APM discusses biobased approaches and self assembly of parts.
    Protein engineering paper and discussion of the DNA as pathway since the 1980s by Drexler and papers presented at Foresight conferences (Foresight the organization setup by Drexler and his colleagues).

    Molecular nanotechnology can be top down, bottom up, wet, dry and has been discussed in these terms for well over ten years.

    There has been a focus on diamondoid as being a near ultimate form of molecular nanotechnology but there never was a statement that the biobased version would not be very useful and powerful.

    Plus DNA has been used already to assemble and position millions of dry nanoparticles. The researchers are working to apply parallel chemical bonds so that when the structure is dryed that the nanoparticles stay in place. IBM is working on using DNA to posiion carbon nanotubes as an alternative to CMOS lithography for computer chips and electronics. Not molecularly precise but within 1-2 nanometers of precision. Same for the DNA pistons. So there does appear to be possible and promising ways to crossover from wet nanotech mastery over to dry positioning and control. There is also self assembly of wet and dry parts with wet and then assembled parts with wet, dry or macro techniques.

    Zyvex’s Atomically precise manufacturing project using a build of atomically precise layers (dry) has been funded for 15 million. Again an interesting capability is successful on the roadmap to productive molecular nanotechnology.

    Freitas and Merkle have their computationally defined molecular toolset and are getting experimentalists to work with realizing it.

    Clearly DNA nanotech is ahead now. Whole genome equencing could be $5000 at the end of this year from $60000 now. Likely could be down to $1000 next year. Rapidly falling costs and increasing capabilities. Many are extending the DNA work with synthetic bases, synthetic chromosomes, extending to other materials.

    At the Material (MRS) Research Society spring meeting (just completed in San Francisco) there was a demo of microscopes and manipultion systems that worked at only a few degrees kelvin for the sample. So if there is a need to bootstrap with low temperatures then it can be done.

  4. I have another comment in response to Richard (about the incorrectness of saying MNT is and was only about dry diamondoid).

    Here I will expand upon that without links under the assumption that comment will be activated shortly.

    Nanosystems, the 1992 book by Eric Drexler, chapter 16 pages 469-488 talks about paths to molecular manufacturing.

    A possible stage discusses surface chemistry for system assembly and folded polymers as structural materials. Stage 2 discusses crosslinked polymers.

    16.4 discusses diamondoid versus non-diamondoid

    solution phase and liquid phase mechanisms are discussed.

    stage 1a brownian assembly of medium blocks (guided self assembly)

    stage 2 first gen solution based systems

    Chapter 8 has a lot of talk about solution phase synthesis

    So it is indicated that diamondoid would be better if we can get it solution phase comes first and will be very useful on its own, but we should be able to also get to dry and diamondoid as well.

    Is because the current work is listed as stage 1a or 2 that bothers people like Richard Jones who want to claim that stage 2 or 3 has to be the ultimate development (the one they are working on and written books a decade after the 1992 nanosystems ?) Nanosystems clearly was just a beginning but to disregard and corner parts of it without acknowledging the larger foundation laid by Foresight and Drexler is wrong and then to create some caricture of what was defined and then criticize that is wrong.

  5. A machine which can manipulate individual molecules seems only like a small first step in comparison to other challenges in MNT:
    1. Knowing where each molecule belongs to make the desired product–having a molecularly precise blueprint (structural description) or program (procedural description).
    2. Communicating to the nano-machines how to place each atom.
    Could someone point me to an article which explains these points in layperson’s terms?

  6. Interesting article, Michael.

    I’ve been thinking lately about how transhumanists ought to frame “feasibility arguments” in order to have the maximum positive impact on safe future technology development. There’s a trade-off: if you argue too fervently that the technology WILL HAPPEN, then people start to think you’re a “techno-cultist” and completely discount what you’re saying. If you go too far the other way and let the sceptics trample all over an idea, then people will go with the sceptics and think it’ll NEVER happen.

    I have come to the conclusion that one should aim for a compromise: argue the pros and cons of the technology to the point where you could reasonably claim that it isn’t beyond reasonable doubt that the technology will happen. Then argue that the potential effects of the technology are so great that even though we are very far from sure that this technology will happen, it’s worth us investing some time and money into planning for it.

    In the case of this article, I feel that you have erred a little (and only a little) towards the “techno-cultist” end of things. Where, in your article, are the best arguments AGAINST the feasibility of MNT? You said:

    some futurists and scientists believe MNT is impossible

    but you didn’t say why they think so, or what their arguments are. I think that the article would be more convincing if it included some criticism. [of course, the title does say “feasibility arguments”, not “a balanced perspective on… ” but the balance needs to come somewhere… ]

  7. Roko,

    Richard Jones’ Soft Machines blog features a number of technical and detailed criticisms of MNT. See, for example, Is Mechanosynthesis Feasible? The Debate Continues and Richard’s excellent post Six Challenges for Molecular Nanotechnology .

    I am currently collaborating with Rob Freitas on diamondoid mechanosynthesis. A key objective remains the seven step dimer row fabrication procedure outlined in Part III of the debate between Chris Phoenix and I linked to above.

    Best wishes,


  8. Joshua,

    Design of a Primitive Nanofactory is a good place to start. For a longer exposition of the first steps towards solving these challenges, see Drexler’s Nanosystems.


    I’ve added a link to Richard Jones’ “challenges for molecular nanotechnology” at the end.

  9. A more complete view of the challenges for nanofactories is at Freitas’ nanofactory collaboration

    Note: there is a level of progress and capability for each point. When a point is listed is not an indication that there is no capability at present.

    There is a lot of work and capability around massively parallel manipulation probe arrays but they need more precision for each manipulator.

    Roko, one aspect is not to exclusively focus on the feasibility of a specific version of MNT but to focus on what capability in that direction can be achieved. (the Zyvex atomically precise manufacturing method, exanding DNA nanotechnology) Venter’s method for synthesizing 500,000 base pairs of DNA could be used to make a 3-4 million base pair synthetic ribosome [as early as next year if anyone were so inclined].

    What needs to be discussed is that the United States (and many other countries) science and technology research community has seen a return to a culture which is less likely to pursue high risk/high payoff technology research.

    We should be trying to do things that might not work, but which if they do work would be huge.

    If our portfolio of research is like a basketball team that only goes for layups then that team will score less than one that can make layups and three pointers and shoot from the field and one that can execute a fast break. Someone who only has a portfolio of T-bills will likely underperform someone with a mix of stocks, bonds and some commodities and a fraction (2-10%) of high risk/high return investments.

    DARPA people are trying to defend themselves from the charge that they are not interested in high-risk and high payoff research and are leaving the United States open to another nation surprising the United States with an unchallenged success in a high payoff research area. DARPA continues to be interested in high-risk, high-payoff research,” says DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker.

    Playing it “safe” with our research and development is a bad plan in an accelerating technology environment.

    There is the problem of false negatives in selection of technology development projects Not choosing to pursue a technology development project which in fact would have succeeded and should have been chosen for development. The value of projects (that became companies) not green lighted by Xerox exceeds the value of the Xerox corporation.

    The missed value/cost to society of delayed achievement in research is also huge.

    The cost of flushing 300 billion on the relative deadends of the space Shuttle and International Space station goes beyond the money spent but to the cost of the missed opportunities.

    The cost of wasting 30-50% of tax dollars on ineffective and unnecessary programs also goes to missed opportunity. Spending more on effective disease prevention and cures and less on hospices would be a better investment for the future. Going to the root of problems and less on the symptoms.

    Not spending on a good basket of potential approaches to getting MNT is a symptom of risk adverse and suboptimal research and development bets and program management. NNI first years mostly just spent money on buildings and equipment without any expectation or accountability for deliverying results.

    Many R&D projects and funding is a collegial game of fund my project and I fund yours and we get tenure and maybe my project will work out and I can spin it off into a company or if not I have a larger department and more PHDs working for me.

    Failure to get results can be okay, but not having a good plan and not trying to give the best effort with the resources provided is not okay. It is also not ok to have a plan that even if it succeeded would not make a difference.

    If the system does not fund thinking about big problems, you think about small problems.

  10. Brian states above:

    “What needs to be discussed is that the United States (and many other countries) science and technology research community has seen a return to a culture which is less likely to pursue high risk/high payoff technology research”

    This is certainly the case in the UK where the Engineering and Physical Scienes Research Council (EPSRC) has just restructured, transferring funds from blue-skies research to top-down managed research programmes. (See here (and associated links) for details). This is driven by a requirement to demonstrate short term impact of EPSRC-funded research to the government via, for example, spin-outs and patenting.

    Leaving aside the difficult ethical questions that can sometimes arise from the (ab)use of public funds to support the R&D programmes of the private sector, there is, as you point out, the issue of to what extent a focus on short term “economic impact” can stifle true innovation. I’ve written about this recently in a Commentary for Nature Nanotechnology, a preprint of which is available here . There is also the question of the fundamental role of the university in society but that’s another story…

    Best wishes,


  11. @Philip Moriarty: Thanks for the link – the debate is very interesting!

    The technical details aside, I think our job as good transhumanists is to decide: “is there a non-negligible chance of a significant proportion of the goals of Drexlerian MNT being realized within, say, the next 50 years?”

    From reading through some of the email conversations, I would argue that the answer to the above question is an emphatic “yes”. It seems to me that this fundamentally important fact is somewhat obscured because some of the proponents of the Drexlereian stance are being a little bit too eager and overenthusiastic. From my limited experiences in engineering, I know that most things that you try fail to work for some silly reason that you didn’t think of; this is normal.

    But on the other hand, some things that you think are impossible turn out to be possible because of some devilishly clever trick that you didn’t think of. To decide whether nanofactories could be here by 2020, 2030 or 2050, we must balance these two factors against each other. The stakes are high, and there is little doubt in my mind that we should be making plans for how to deal with nanotechnology, just in case.

  12. Further to what I said above, I think the problem is very much one of getting people to act sensibly in the presence of conceptual uncertainties. The pro-Drexler crowd don’t have a proof that nanofactories are possible: they have “milestones” and ideas, but no watertight, specific proposals. [where they have specific mechanisms, their critics point out serious flaws with those mechanisms]

    I think that we have to realize that in planning for the future, we simply can’t afford to wait until we’re sure that something will work. We have to go on “back of the envelope” calculations and “milestones”. We have to move away from the binary distinction between nanotech is bunk/nanotech is the holy grail, and hold instead a view that there is a whole spectrum of possible outcomes, each with varying likelihoods. Money for further research or for planning for the possible effects of successful MNT needs to be dished out in proportion to an integral of [probability]*[magnitude of effect] over an entire distribution of outcomes, and the [probability] part needs to be assessed on the basis of evidence that is, in some cases, quite shaky.

  13. I’ve grown a bit weary with alla the naysayers out there who haven’t looked at the research.

    Stop reading what everyone else is saying about the topic and go read the journals and papers. Many of the researchers involved – when they have time – will respond to intelligent, well-informed correspondence, as well.

    At this point, it isn’t a matter of “if” nanofactories become a reality. It’s a matter of “when.” That’s where the research and development is at present. Today, if the research and researchers from several universities and corporate labs were placed into one facility and given the resources they need, I think they could actually build the first proto-type. It would be very expensive, very bulky (lots of floor space, here), slow… and more than likely, very specialized.

    Will the earliest working proto-types match Drexler’s vision? Probably not. I imagine they will be rather bulky and very specialized.

    On the other hand, we’re still lighting fircrackers under tin cans to get into space and we’re still using internal-combustion engines for transportation…when alternatives to both are available. Which is what happens when the naysayers control the narrative.

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