Nanotechnology and Aerospace


Giorgio Gaviraghi, José Cordeiro, and Tihamer Toth-Fejel at Transvision

Tihamer Toth-Fejel earned his Masters Degree from the University of Notre Dame, in the Department of Electrical Engineering. His master’s thesis was on “Self-Test: From Simple Circuits to Self-Replicating Automata” and resulted in his first article on Transhumanist themes: “Angels of Steel”. He is a Senior Associate of the Foresight Institute, where he has been a member since 1987. He was Secretary of the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group, a special interest chapter of the National Space Society. He is also a senior research engineer at the General Dynamics Advanced Intelligence Systems, where he investigates nanotechnology applications for aerospace and other areas. His 2007 Transvision presentation was entitled “Small, Fast, and High: Nanotechnology and Aerospace.”

The following transcript of Tihamer Toth-Fejel’s 2007 Transvision presentation “Small, Fast, and High: Nanotechnology and Aerospace” has not been approved by the author.

Small, Fast, and High: Nanotechnology and Aerospace

Some of the ideas I’m going to be presenting here are from Keith Henson. So if you could call Governor Schwarzenegger and also the people at the Riverside county jail, that would be great.

Basically, I will be introducing some of the concepts of nanotechnology, and talking about the near-term, mid-term, and far-term applications. But first, how many people here have heard of Enignes of Creation? If you’ve actually read Engines of Creations or Nanosystems, please stand up. Nanofuture is actually a very good updated version of Eric Drexler‘s book.

What you are probably familiar with is the term “top-down” in terms of nanotechnology. And basically this is scanning tunnel microscopes, which is very similar to using bulldozers to do manufacturing. It’s a very awkward way of doing things. On the other hand, there’s a lot of promise here. In fact, Dartmouth just yesterday released an announcement trying to get people to think about tech-based manufacturing. Zyvex is very interested in this sort of technology. The problem with top-down is that as you get smaller, it gets more expensive.

Now, you’ve heard of “bottom-up?” Bottom-up is like putting things in a cement mixer and expecting to get Rolex watches out of it. On the other hand, this is what chemistry is and has been for over 200 years. There’s a problem with chemistry, though. The more atoms that you put together into a molecular complex, the more sensitive it gets. Say you’re making crystals, you would end up with defects, and there is no way to correct for that. There’s annealing and other techniques that scientists have used, but we would still have that hard limit.

So, if you plot all these on a particular table, you will see that we have ordinary manufacturing here, we have chemists here, we have top-down directed nanolithography, you see a big hole here. If you look at the parts and the tools they use to build with bottom-up assembly, with one you are building things one at a time, and with the other you are doing things at billions and billions and billions of operations per second. So what you really want to get to is the bottom-up concept, where you have many billions of machines working in parallel.

Now, the concept here is that you really only need to build one of these nanorobots. Because once you have the first one, you can use it to build others, until you have an entire nanofactory. One of the ways, in terms of how you get to that point, we have four stages of nanotechnology. Mihail Rocco, one of the architects of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is spending $1 billion a year on nanotechnology, first came up with these four stages of development.

First of all, we started in the year 2000 with passive nanostructures. These are 50 nanometer nanoparticles that act differently whether they are back lit or lighted from the front, so it changes color. Interestingly enough, this secret was lost for over 1000 years, and lost again until the 1900′s, which gives you the idea that patents are important. Top-down manufacturing of nanostructures by IBM happened in 1989, and I think this is going to take off with the large DARPA project that just started.

The second stage, functional nanostructures, here is the Berkeley nanomotor. It is a carbon nanotube being used as a nanomachine by using a bearing that is at the nanoscale. In Nanofuture, what Robert calls these molecular nanosystems, which are heterogeneous networks of molecules and supermolecular structures serve as distinct devices. I agree that this is one way of saying it, but you are not going to be able to build these nanosystems unless you are using nanosystems to build them. Hence, Eric Drexler’s term “productive nanosystems.” There is an interesting thing which is called “systems of nanostructures,” directing large numbers of intricate components to specified ends.

So, let’s look at the near-term things that we can do with nanotechnology. The most obvious, which I’m sure you’ve heard, is Edwards’ space elevator. The thing that is special about it is now that we have carbon nanotubes, we will have a chance of building these things. Carbon nanotubes are one of the strongest materials known. Interestingly enough, when you look at the technical details of the space elevator, ironically enough Eric Drexler pointed this out, once you get a crack, the crack propagates faster than the speed of sound. So, basically, an explosion. It seems to me, from a technical standpoint, I don’t think we will be able to build this.

What we will be able to do in the near-term is build stronger materials. We have already gotten up to 10 centimeter long carbon nanotubes. How do you get it to work over longer ranges? One way is by making the tubes longer. Another way is by combining the tubes into a matrix. The idea is to create carbon nanotubes with the flexibility of polymers. The problem is that these carbon nanotubes are much longer than depicted here, and they ball up into a bunch of spaghetti. Now, Zyvex has come up with a solution by putting a molecule between the carbon nanotube and the polymer that you have as your matrix material. The nice thing is that you need only 2% loading and you can increase the tensile strength by 72% and increase electric conductivity by 12 magnitudes. This is something that is in use today, and Zyvex is making money off it by making bats and golf clubs.

The other thing that nanoparticles are used for is you use fat to get a very high surface to volume ratio. If you have a golf ball’s worth of nanoparticles, if they are not nanoparticles you have the surface area of a playing card. If they are 100 nanometer nanoparticles, you are looking at four football fields. That sort of thing is very useful for catalytic processes. Samsung is trying to make money off this. The problem is that when some of these nanoparticles get released into the environment, they get to the sewage treatment plant and kill off all the beneficial bacteria.

One of the other exciting areas for the near-term is in increasing the efficiency of solar cells. The other exciting thing going on in the near-term are what are called nanocoatings. For example, surface hardenings. If you have a smoother surface here, then things don’t grind up, and for an extra $1000 you don’t need to have your artificial knees replaced for $50,000. The other exciting thing is self-cleaning windows. The way you do that is you simulate at a molecular level a lotus leaf, and the water rolls right off. We want to be able to do DNA sequencing on a chip. This can be up to eight base pairs. We have a long way to go before we can get to our own DNA. NASA is actually doing experiments with one-chain gas sensors that are small and tough, and depending on what kind of molecule you put on the outer surface of these carbon nanotubes, you can use a mass of carbon nanotubes, which is fairly granular, and you can still get decent results in terms of being able to characterize different gases.

The next area of interest, this was done at UCLA by Stoddart and his group. Basically you’ve got a cross-section of 300 bistable rotaxane molecules that you can switch on and off, and you are able to achieve a density that the semiconductor road map isn’t expecting until 2020. So I think we’re a little ahead of the curve. There are still a lot of problems to be worked out here, because this particular rotaxane memory can switch data back and forth only about ten times before it starts becoming degraded.

This is one of the few things that the Nanotechnology Initiative is doing right. And it has to do with being able to measure things. If you cannot measure something quickly and cheaply, then you cannot build it.

Now, let’s go to the medium term. Paul Rothemund at Caltech, this is one guy practically in a basement, he is working by himself and orders DNA off the internet, mixes them up in a jar, heats it up to 90 degrees and lets it cool for two hours. You can literally do it in the kitchen sink. A high school student could do it. In fact, a high school student has done it. If you go to the Nanorex website, Mark Sims, the president, has a daughter who is a high school student and she went out and did it. The thing is, this isn’t just 2 billion smiley faces in a teaspoon, which is a lot of concentrated happiness, but we want to do is take for example some DNA and attach it to something useful like a nanofuel, and this gives you the ability to arrange these nanotubes exactly where you want them to, quickly and easily.

Once you can build arbitrary structures in three-dimensions, then a lot of applications become possible. The first is building a 5 nanometer pore. It’s small enough so that the bacteria cannot get a foothold on it. You might be able to make aquapores and desalinate water without using energy, which is a pretty cool concept. Another possibility is fuel cells, which are not a power source, but they are a good way to store energy. Another thing to do is at optical frequencies build phase arrays. We cannot build things at that range yet. This could be used for sensing and other applications.

Now, how many people here have seen the nanofactory video? This is really only the last thirty seconds because we’re cheating. We are using chemical synthesis mechanisms to build these blocks. Compared to the Drexler nanofactory, you have a fairly limited supply of building blocks. Even if you have a dozen of them, you can do some really amazing things with them. You could build a water filter, but you could also build a computer. And, in fact, the whole idea is that if you have a nanofactory, you can have self-replication. With self-assembly you are throwing things in a box and shaking it around. With self-replication you actually have a program running software. The killer app would be a mechanosynthetic printer.

I live in Michigan. I have a Jeep and am always pulling people out of the ditch. I actually used this to pull a car out of the ditch. This is some of the tether that actually looks like it’s made out of yarn. It’s made out of Zylon, which is twice as strong as Kevlar. But it’s still a long way before we get to carbon nanotubes. Here is something practical you can do with high structures. This is Josh Hall’s idea of a space pier.

But getting back to the idea of a nanofactory, once you get a molecular printer, what will you print first? Of course, another molecular printer. You could sell it for a million dollars and the first person who buys it can print four copies and sell them at half a million dollars apiece, and he will make double his money in a couple days. Eventually, everyone has one, and the price has dropped to a dollar apiece.

So, what is the second most valuable thing you can print? We will need feedstock for the printer cartridges and use all the C02 in the atmosphere. Goodbye global warming and hello global cooling. In fact, all the trees are going to die because there is no more C02 in the air. The Sierra Club will frantically dig up all of Wyoming to find all the coal and burn it as early as possible. Until congress finally passes a law making it illegal. But how are they going to enforce it? You would have to have very powerful nanotech tools to monitor what is happening. That’s going to make Orwell’s 1984 look like a kindergarten playground. There are two other alternatives. One is a capitalist system. That means that everyone will own the air. The other possibility is that you engineer plants so that they don’t need C02 and get it some other way. That’s a whole other ballgame, you’re redesigning the ecosystem. It seems like you’re facing the lady or the tiger behind the two doors. And the lady is Medusa on a bad hair day.

But that’s okay. If you take a step back, to get some perspective, a billion years ago, we had our ancestral single-celled organisms, and they evolved on the oxygen-free environment of earth, where hard UV radiation hits the organic molecules and creates amino acids. Now, could you imagine what would happen were some poor microbe to invent photosynthesis? ‘I’m going to produce a gas that is toxic on impact. After it poisons us all, it’s going to rise to the atmosphere, create the ozone layer, cut off the food supply, and anyone who uses this invention will have to depend on someone else to create the Krebs cycle. Of course those people turn into herbivores and eat us. So basically you have this bloody conflict that’s going to emerge on this planet. Plus, you have the most totalitarian system of all emerging: multicellularism. This is really what we are looking at, and I don’t think there is anything we can do about it. People call me a pathological optimist, because I think we are going to muddle through.

Howard Bloom has an interesting take on this. He says, rather gently, that nature is not a motherly protector. Nature, in my opinion, is a psychopathic bitch, and she’s out to get you. So, what are you going to do about it? And the funny thing is, we know that there have been 140 major die-offs so far. There have been six far bigger mass extinctions. 99.99% of all species on this planet have been wiped out, and we had nothing to do with it. The thing is, Mother Nature’s message to us is pretty simple. Adapt, change, or die. And she rewards those who challenge her the most. So, if we oppose her, we are going to be okay.


The difference now is that Darwin’s tools are at our disposal. So, we are going to be manipulating the environment, as all life does. The thing about the space domain, compared to nanotechnology, is that, as Linus put it, “No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.” Of course there is a caveat to that. If we go into space, we will run away from a lot of problems. But we will solve a lot of them, too. In the same way that the United States by having a new social experiment in governance that was able to do things no one else could do. And that’s one of the reasons I think the United States is such a great nation. We are not going to get into space, not in a big way, without nanotechnology. At the same time, nanotechnology is such a dangerous tool that we need to have an insurance policy.

So, let me give you some hard choices. Isaac Asimov worried about overpopulation, and in very graphic terms, described a ball of human flesh expanding at the speed of light. Now, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement obviously shares his view. As transhumanists, we know it’s not going to involve flesh. It will be a post-human ball of flesh, steel, and silicon. However, some transhumanists actually still share Asimov’s sensibilities. Extropia DaSilva has written that the notion that endlessly replicating humans consuming the resources of one planet, then spreading out to other worlds, is vile. Which is basically the same thing that Paul Ehrlich wrote back in the ’60s with The Population Bomb. He says, “We’re a cancer on the face of the Earth.”

Hello? The universe is unconscious, dead matter. It doesn’t care what you do. I mean, where does this self-hating meme come from? I don’t know. If we spread out through the universe, we’re doing it a favor. Because then, as many speakers have said already, the universe becomes self-conscious. This is the very thing the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin wrote about, where the whole idea is to make the universe self-aware. It’s a philosphical question, and I think it really depends on how we view ourselves. Are we something that is inherently evil, or are we something that is inherently good? And more to the point, are we a semi-random bunch of atoms, or are we children of God, made in His image? This is a deep philosophical question that many of us have not really addressed.

There are ways to approach this problem and help figure this out. One of them, this is a question I ask people all the time, How long do you want to live? And this is after I go through my Eric Drexler nanotechnology stuff and the Methuselah mouse prize, and then I ask them this question. Most of them say, “A hundred years.” Why a hundred years? It makes no sense. Some people have pointed out that Tolkien’s elves were immortal, but they had an air of sadness about them. And the reason was, they saw all the suffering of the world. They worked against it, but they knew that their triumphs over evil were merely temporary. So, given that, how do you deal with the suffering that comes our way? Scott Peck has pointed out that a lot of suffering comes about because we are trying to avoid legitimate suffering. In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Samantha Caine says, “Life is pain. Get used to it.”

One way to ask that question better is not “How long do you want to live?” But, “What do you want to achieve before you die?” And Robert Heinlein I think has a very good answer for this. He says, “I want to love every decent person.” As a Christian, I think I have a better answer. I want to love every person, whether they are decent or not, in the hopes that my love will transform them, and make them better. Second question. What do you really want? Sure we all want to be happy, but what makes us fulfilled? I mean, 20 amps to your pleasure centers for the next million years, I don’t think that’s what we really, really want. We want a good life. But what does that mean? If you look at heroes and saints, one should live for the goodness of others. And that cannot be simulated.

So, the thing is, everything depends on who we really are at that fundamental level. Think hard, the nanotech revolution is coming quick.


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