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Radioisotopic Food Nanobots: Freitas Response

I recently wrote to Rob Freitas about his radioisotope-powered food nanorobot idea that, if it works, could allow people to eat at severely reduced levels for as long as a century or more. As far as I can tell, food would still be needed due to cell loss from shedding skin cells and the like, but this would likely be relatively little. As Roko pointed out, the gadolinium-powered nanobots could reconstitute ATP from waste products like urea. The gadolinium would just provide the energy for running the chemical reactions needed to produce fresh ATP.

Here is the email I wrote to Rob Freitas:

Hi Robert, I saw an idea of yours posted at the World Future Society, and blogged it. Me and my readers weren't clear on some of the details, and a few google searches turned up nothing. All of us would appreciate if you would weigh in on the thread and answer our burning questions.

Thanks, and I'm always impressed by all the ideas you come up with.


Here is the response (posted with permission):

Hi, Michael.

The 148Gd power source proposal was described in NMI (1999) at The semiconductor shell structure crudely illustrated in Fig. 6.7 is intended to be an atomically precise structure. The radioactive 148Gd is kept permanently encapsulated while inside the body. The minimum radius for this powerplant is on the order of ~11 microns, so it is clearly intended for fixed-site multi-nodal (not bloodborne) use.

I haven't yet published any detailed scaling studies specifically describing dietary-related nanorobotic systems. These proposals now exist only in rough form in my long (across 2 decades!) accumulated notes for Chapter 26 in Vol. III of my Nanomedicine book series. I hope to find time to publish NMIII sometime in this decade.

Best wishes,
Rob Freitas

I read the page that Freitas linked. Here's one of the core specs:

A (1 micron)3 cube of Gd148 produces ~5 a-particles/sec, yielding an output current of ~1 picoampere at ~3 volts (e.g., ~3 pW).

Interesting! The page also points out that the cost of Gd148 must be brought down significantly before it becomes a feasible power source, because in 1998 it cost about a dollar per two cubic microns(!) This is expensive stuff. The number of nanobots that might be used would need to be on the order of a hundred trillion (not a billion, as I wrote previously), each with a cubic micron-sized power core, though 11 microns across due to shielding. Given the 1998 cost of Gd148, a full system would cost about $50 trillion for the fuel alone! Near the top of the page it says, "Selection of an optimum radioactive fuel is guided primarily by safety criteria".

An interesting idea, and food for nanotechnological thought.

Comments (9) Trackbacks (0)
  1. An amusing concept, though far from the most efficient use of nanotechnology for combating hunger.

  2. It’s obnoxious that it isn’t socially acceptable to talk about high-tech ways of preventing hunger without mentioning low-tech ways of preventing hunger in the same post. The irony is that the people familiar with the high-tech potential solutions would probably do a better job of determining the best way to alleviate global hunger than those only familiar with the methods employed by mainstream charities. In my last post on this concept, I linked to Giving What You Can. But should I really be forced to link them every single time I talk about this, just to appease those who are always painstakingly scouring for evidence that all transhumanists are rabidly pro-capitalist anti-egalitarian when that isn’t true anyway?

    At one point, mechanized agriculture was just an idea. It seems like you’d be the sort of person who would come out and say, “well machines are all good, but there are better ways to feed the world” (hinting that the nobles ought to give up their money to feed the public, for instance). But over time, technological improvements have done massively more to feed the world than resource redistribution. This includes technological improvements once considered “pie-in-the-sky”, such as the artificial fixation of fertilizer.

  3. uploading would be a more efficient way to use nanotech to improve people’s lives than what is suggested here.

  4. I hope that everyone will not be forced to upload and destroy their physical body, and if it isn’t be the case we need an efficient way to sustain physical bodies.
    Possibly individuals will both upload and stay biological, sharing intelligence and ‘conciousness’ between the biological and the various substraits/mediums that are distributed around the place, and that they carry around with them.

  5. I had assumed Summerspeaker was referring to using nanotechnology to produce food.

  6. That’s about right, Peter. I had CRN’s vision of better greenhouses in mind, ideally with automated caretakers. Early nanofactories probably won’t be able to produce food directly.

    Michael, while you correctly grasp our political differences, I suggest choosing another hill to defend. I didn’t intend my comment as an attack of the type you suggest. I thoroughly enjoy reading about speculative technologies, even impractical ones.

    It’s the energy source that forces this idea into that category. As your later investigations show, there’s just not enough gadolinium around. And anyway, why bother with radioactive elements when we’re light-minutes away from an immense fusion reactor?

  7. Traditionalists may opt for photosynthesis.

  8. The obvious killer app for this technology in our birthbodies is space travel. Imagine how much less mass one would have to push into space for a return trip to Mars if the crew had one of these each.

    Question is which is further away from real development. Uploading consciousness or this nanotech food pill?

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