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Philip Moriarty Discusses Mechanosynthesis with Sander Olson

From Next Big Future:

University of Nottingham physicist Philip Moriarty is one of the few scientists who has been able to do extensive research into molecular mechanosynthesis. In 2004 Moriarty engaged in a debate with Chris Phoenix over the feasibility of molecular manufacturing. In 2008 Moriarty received a grant from the British Government to examine the viability of mechanosynthesis. In this Next Big Future interview with Sander Olson, Moriarty discusses the progress that has been made during the past decade, the challenges of working with diamond, and the prospects for building components out of silicon and diamond.

Question: You began the project for experimental work on molecular mechanosynthesis about five years ago. How is the project going?

Answer: The mechanosynthesis project has actually only been running for about 2.5 years now and the initial goal was to explore the possibility of atom-by-atom assembly on diamond surfaces , i.e. to test the viability of Drexler's original vision of making components out of diamond. But as Drexler himself recently pointed out diamond is a very difficult material to work with. As a result, in Nottingham we have a parallel effort focused on silicon, which is much, much easier to work with than diamond. For example, we only very recently achieved atomic resolution using non-contact atomic force microscopy on a hydrogen-passivated diamond surface. Moving beyond imaging to atomic manipulation of the diamond surface is going to be much more challenging than for silicon.


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  1. Moriarity said that Smalley didn’t really understand Drexler’s work and that Smalley’s criticisms of Drexler were not valid.

    Moriarity said that he doesn’t think his mechanosynthesis research will scale up to a manufacturing system because it only works near absolute zero at a near perfect vacuum.

    Actually, I know a place where that won’t be problem.

    Wouldn’t it be great if molecular manufacturing was the economic driver which finally justified expansion into space!

  2. Space isn’t really close to a perfect vacuum, it’s filled with micrometeorites and dust, but I see what you mean.

  3. Michael:

    Good points. I’d also add radiation to your list. Radiation could cause the same mutation errors in an atomically precise nanomachine that it does to biological systems.

    But enclosing the nanofactory behind a thick wall (made of any material including asteroid rubble or lunar regolith) would protect from radiation and micrometeorites. I don’t think dust is that big a problem; but a simple screen could filter dust.

    This is much easier than placing an entire Earthbound factory in a near perfect vacuum and cooling it to almost absolute zero.

    I think that spending tens of billions of dollars on a Mars mission is money wasted. Spend the money on self replicating universal constructors (nanotech, 3d printers, factory automation, etc.) and you’ll open up the entire Solar System. We don’t lack propulsion technology. We lack technology to exploit space resources when we get there. While your at it, I’d spend some of that space money on friendly superintelligence research.

  4. I should add that synthetic biology need not be dismissed as unpractical. Given energy, a fully closed matter recycling cycle is possible, and given suitable barriers, a synthetic biology machine should also be able to process and extract resources as well as serve as terraforming machinery.

  5. I wonder if the “assembler” really will work, and how big the smallest assembler (if possible) could be.”Gray Goo” at least seems some what unfeasible (although I have not made any actual calculations) if you think about it already exist, if you let a singe ecol bacteria divide for a few days (under perfect conditions) the culture will have the same mass as the earth but since conditions are not perfect well you know. I’m not saying it not possible, just that it might be. I mean would you have sun-powered nanobots that would brake every covalent bond on the planet in a mater of days? That is a LOT of energy…

  6. might not be.*

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