Brian Wang is a member of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology‘s Global Implications and Policy Task Force and a scientific advisory board member of the Lifeboat Foundation. At the 2007 Foresight Vision Weekend Unconference, he gave a presentation called “Converging Technology.” The talk presented proposals for using previously unrelated technologies together for mining the ocean’s $720 trillion in uranium, while further examples of converging technology proposed for revolutionizing space capabilities at lower cost while reducing risk.
The following transcript of Brian Wang’s Foresight Vision Weekend presentation “Converging Technology: Mining the Oceans for $720 Trillion in Uranium, Revolutionize Space Capabilities” has been corrected and approved by the author for publication. Video is also available.
My name is Brian Wang. I’ve been involved with Foresight since the mid-90′s. I’m now working with the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and their Task Force group, including Mike Treder, Chris Phoenix and Jamais Cascio.
I have a website, advancednano.blogspot.com. I’m going to talk about converging technology, my ideas around how to look at it and try to think about opportunities that could be taken advantage of. I consider it something like Web 2.0 mashups. Currently you have web services like Google Maps and location information databases being combined to create a map of real estate prices or rental prices, which can be done very easily. I think the main thing is that you are saving a lot of time and money to get to a particular solution by combining things that are already there – things that are improving rapidly or taking advantage of new capabilities in different ways.
So, with Web 2.0 mashups you are looking at broader levels of technologies and different kinds of methods being used to get to different kinds of applications. This is a bigger view of mashing things up. You definitely want to get something that’s cheaper and sooner. If you wait until molecular manufacturing arrives, nanofactories and that kind of thing, then many things become very cheap and easy to do. The thing about convergence would be that you can think of how you can do that now or very soon. How can I get to something very interesting by combining things together in new ways?
The bigger your toolkit is, the more possibilities you can attack. You also have to have a bigger detailed view of possible problems. The bigger toolkit is to know all the technologies that are coming down the pike or already available. At my website and on other futurist websites you might be able to see all sorts of new technologies: metamaterials and superlenses, new things being done with viruses and DNA, a long list. The more you know about those things, the more you can apply something in an interesting way. I will give some examples of the ideas I’ve come up with around applying a lot of technology that I’ve looked at into something that I think could be interesting. Of course, the more properties and effects you look at, the better your ideas. Some of the effects I’m talking about include not just strength of material, but things like magnetic properties, optical properties, and being able to use those in the mix.
Some technologies that I think are underestimated are the labs on a chip and bubble logic. Labs on a chip is where you have a piece of silicon and you have etched into it a bunch of pathways, so you have a bunch of reservoirs, which hold a small amount of liquid material. Then you can move it over and combine it to do a lab reaction.
Bubble logic is where you do the same kind of thing, but you use micron-size or smaller bubbles and they go around these pathways on your chip. They are much faster and more flexible because they can be treated like a liquid version of a computer. I view it as a better version of labs on a chip. Some of the technologies I think are underestimated: Nanomaterials are revolutionizing.
A lot of companies are doing interesting things with nanomembranes. They are also using nanopores to sequence DNA a lot faster. That’s something that is dropping in price a great deal, where you run DNA through a small hole and then you can check the electronic differences to see whether it’s one of the four different elements. You can then do the sequence a lot faster. If you have a lot of pores, you can do it a lot faster and then maybe you can bring the cost of sequencing DNA from a million dollars to a hundred thousand, then a thousand dollars for a whole genome.
Those kinds of rapidly improving things, some improving faster than Moore’s law, you could use in ways previously unintended or combine it with something else. Lasers have been around awhile but you have new things you can do with them. There are femtosecond lasers, which are very short pulses. You can pretty much disintegrate something off the surface. Because the reaction time is so fast, you can blast off the surface. You can do all kinds of things with reactions and timing with femtosecond lasers.
Wireless, I think is underestimated. Robotics – there are something like 4.5 million robots in the United States. There are robot vacuum cleaners and UAV’s. It’s an area that I think is in the back of people’s minds, but it’s kind of overlooked. There are also early stage versions in production of what we will get with nanofactories: rapid prototyping, rapid manufacturing, and something called claytronics. Rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing are here now. Basically they are close to a billion dollar industry, if not more. You have some devices as small as a desktop, others the size of a couple refrigerators, which are used to make fairly precise products. The protoype version is a relatively inert 3D object, which is a mock-up. The manufacturing is electronic, where you actually make a working camera, or something like that. The issue with manufacturing is that you want to do short runs so it’s cheaper.
The more you know about the long list of technologies, the better. Let me talk about an idea that I had for a convergence technology opportunity. We had this morning’s talk with Matt Francis from the University of Berkeley. He was talking about using viruses and bacteria to create anti-cancer therapies or solar cells. My thinking is that you could apply something similar to the ocean. The ocean has a lot of material in it that you want. There is four billion tons of uranium in the ocean sea water. There is also a lot of lithium, boron, strontium, cobalt. The uranium concentration is about three parts per billion. In Japan they used polyethylene fiber and they irradiated it to create a higher affinity, so it would attract uranium.
So, you take a bunch of netting of this polymer, which is like a white rope, you dump it into the ocean after you irradiate it, and then you leave it there for maybe 30 to 90 days. When you pull it back up again, you are able to take out one kilogram of uranium. That works, but it’s currently a bit too expensive to replace mining for uranium. They think if they scale it up they might be able to get it to $120 per kilogram to get the uranium. That kind of price means that in the ocean, you have about $400 trillion worth of uranium. I think that’s a pretty good thing to go after.
I’m also a big supporter of nuclear energy. I think that the nuclear waste is just unburned nuclear fuel and that is far better than coal. It won’t kill a million people a year. How would we apply that convergence with the technology that Matt Francis talked about this morning? If you had an algae bloom that you could functionalize, where you have algae that comes up in a big mass like an island floating in the ocean, if the algae can then concentrate the uranium for you, similar to the polyethylene fiber, and you might be clever like Matt does and figure out a way to increase the affinity, then you can increase from three parts per billion up to three parts per million or something like that. You would be able to use existing mining technology to get the uranium out.
So, you use make your functional algae bloom, you use the tricks that Matt has to increase the affinity to the uranium, it sits there for awhile and gets more uranium concentration, you then come up with a big scoop and take it away. That way you can bring down the cost of uranium. There are techniques for increasing radiation resistance of mice, where they have injected them with gene therapy and expose them to radiation. The control group that wasn’t treated, 58% of them died. The ones that were treated, only 9% of them died. So another convergence thing is to use gene therapy to make your bacteria tougher and more resistant to the radiation. They have extremeophile microbes which can handle really harsh condition, so you may need to cross-breed your algae with extremeophiles in order to make them tougher.
Looking at some of the things they are doing in the body, because they are focused on biology, that could be applied to something completely different. The nanoscale things right now seem to work great for things in liquid and in gas. Another opportunity in energy might be related to improving processing in fossil fuel petroleum products or with natural gas. I think those are big areas for convergence.
There has recently been the Google lunar challenge, where Google is going to pay $20-$30 million if you can take a robot rover onto the moon. Many people have been saying this is too expensive a thing to do in the five-year time frame that you’re talking about. My solution to it, which is somewhat a convergence of technology methods, is that you don’t create a new billion dollar rocket the way that NASA is talking about going to the moon with. What you do is you use an existing chemical rocket, like a $10 million Russian rocket and you get up to earth orbit. We know you can do that. It’s not a problem. Then there’s this thing called low energy orbital transfer.
This is something that has already been done. If you don’t want to go to the moon in three days the way the Apollo guys did, if you go in five months, what you do is take wider and wider orbit, boosting up a little bit and then you get toward the neutral gravitational balance point between the earth and the sun. In five months you go from earth orbit to lunar orbit and you use maybe 10% of your weight in fuel. You get up into earth’s orbit with, say, 3000 kilograms of weight with a cheap rocket, you spend another 300 pounds on the fuel to get to the lunar orbit, and then you have a cheap lander, like they almost won with the Armadillo Aerospace competition this last week. They were in seconds of achieving the goal. They had to fly from one spot to another and fly back. They kind of flew over and on the way back it crashed. But that was basically simulating flying down from lunar orbit to the lunar surface.
This involves nothing fancy, just using a less used technique to get to the lunar surface. Then you just roll out your robot, which we have plenty of. We have relatively cheap rovers. The low energy orbital transfer is an overlooked technique, and then everything else is using stuff we already have. I think NASA, instead of spending $20 billion on a new rocket just to justify the job on the ground, they should be sending a constant stream of robotics for mining to the moon and start building lunar bases. Then, within a few years time you would have a completely built out city ready to fly your astronauts over to. You don’t have to have something that lands ten tons of stuff with your astronauts. You just fly your astronauts over light because you’ve already built everything over there. It’s all waiting for you. It’s cheap enough for private industry to do.
Another area for space launch is getting to earth orbit is just a matter of delta v. You have to add enough speed to what you’re doing to get up there. A lot of people are hoping for the space elevator, but there are ways to do that earlier. I was thinking about laser arrays. Again, I’m picking up an idea that’s already been studied. NASA had an Institute for Advanced Concepts that had worked out that you could use laser arrays to launch. An old idea is if you had a really big lase, around a billion watts, you could then launch things into orbit, or you could send them far away at very high speeds. The problem is that we don’t have lasers that big. What we do have are lasers that are pretty big. The military is close to putting together a 100 kilowatt laser, which is just at the edge of being interesting for them as a weapon.
What you can do with that instead is you can have 10,000 of them together and you can have the equivalent of a 1 gigawatt laser, which can be used to launch things into orbit just for the cost of electricity. You can further enhance that with mirrors. This is another idea by the Institute for Advanced Concepts. You use the mirrors to bounce the laser light back and forth in order to continually push the thing you’re launching higher. That basically just means that if you bounce it a thousand times, you use a thousand times less energy. Again, the aspect of cheaper, sooner. I don’t want to wait for the big laser, so I figure out different tricks to reduce my energy requirements and reduce the cost of what I’m doing.
The reason I believe that NASA is not doing this is not that there aren’t intelligent people there who could think of it, although some of them might not be thinking in that direction. I believe that NASA is a political pork machine, to be blunt about it. NASA is called a space program, but really it is about getting money into the congressional districts of powerful senators and congressmen. If you look at the map of NASA facilities, you see it’s all spread among the powerful congressmen and senators so they can give jobs to people there. A lot of them, the astronauts and scientists, they are trying hard to do things they believe in, but a lot of that is not so that we can do something really ambitious and interesting in space.
Long after we knew that the space shuttle was not going to give us cheap launches, we continued to flush $100 billion into those things. Even when we knew a space shuttle is a death trap. It’s going to crash once every so often. We still kept using it. Did we have to constantly be sending people into space? No, we can send robots. But there is the public relations side of things, and the other is that they wanted to give jobs to people on the ground. They say, “I can’t shut that down. I’ve got a thousand jobs here.” I think that the astronauts clearly were heroes and that Apollo was very inspirational at the time, but the whole strategy was ill-founded. Also, the space shuttle got modified for the worse by the Nixon administration for political reasons, not because they wanted to make it safer.
The Skylab was doing great things, and they let it crash to the ground. If you want to achieve something useful, like space colonization, Apollo was never going to give you that. Apollo was basically three guys going on a camping trip. You can never really achieve anything with that scale. If you wanted to colonize, what happened in the 1600′s to 1880′s? The years after Columbus came over to the New World, he came back with several ships wit hundreds of people in them. If you want to colonize, you have to have scale. You have to come over with hundreds of people.
The chemical rocket, where you’re just barely going up there with three stages and putting .01% of your mass up there, was never going to lead anywhere. What would have worked, which you actually had, is nuclear. Nuclear rockets would have done it, and you can make safe thermonuclear rockets. I wouldn’t have to figure out low energy launches for getting robots onto the lunar surface if we had nuclear rockets. If you had one rocket nuclear powered, you could dump a thousand tons anywhere you want. The other aspect is you have to realize political realities. The politics of NASA, the politics of Medicare, it is what it is. The politics will change slower than the technology.
Andy Groves has an interesting plan for healthcare. The first idea is to keep elderly people at home as long as possible in order to save $12 billion a year versus nursing homes. Second, build more retail clinics, integrating nurses into pharmacies. Then, automate as much as possible, automating medical records, find out a way to do cheaper automated tests. That’s an opportunity for technology to make a vending machine distribution of medicine easier in order to bring the costs down. Another aspect of medicine is to see that it is connected to energy and transportation. We have 20% or more people getting sick because of air pollution. The numbers from the American Lung Association are that 30,000 people die per year from the effects of coal air pollution. So, you have the Andy Groves thing of doing what you can with technology to make it cheaper and better. Then you have to address the energy problem, and that means things like nuclear power or solar, wind. The reality is that nuclear is here now. It provides close to 80% of France’s energy. That probably will happen soon and we should spend some time on that.
I think the big target application areas for convergence are energy: more efficiency, more generation of it. Also, environment, figuring out ways to clean it up using nanoscale technology. Communications I think is an area that is really good – wireless and laser communications. There are a lot of creative ways to get to space. Again, the focus is on knowing the physics of what you’re doing. Those are areas where you can figure out, if I can make this thing a hundred times cheaper, then I’ve brought the solution 20 years earlier. I don’t have to wait for other things to get cheaper, I can bring it here now and hopefully make a lot of money doing it.
I would combine things like robotics, AI, new materials, lasers, wireless, magnetics, better sensors, nanoscale and MEMS manipulation. That’s basically what I had. Any other questions about that?