Part 2.1 of a series on the history and prospects of advanced nanotechnology
concepts, prompted by the upcoming 50th anniversary of Feynman’s historic talk,
“There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”.
A commenter on the previous post has aired the often-mentioned basement-breakthrough scenario for achieving high-level molecular manufacturing. This scenario makes no sense, and I probably should say why. One reason is generic, and another is rooted in chemistry and physics.
Before a small group with modest resources could accomplish anything dramatic, it will have become quite obvious (despite the cognitive bug I mentioned) that the implementation technologies have become very capable. In that time frame, those technologies will be exploited for a range of advanced but relatively mundane purposes by increasingly large and well-funded R&D programs worldwide. Because the implementation problems will involve complex devices and extensive laboratory facilities, they will be most effectively addressed by large teams of diverse and well-funded specialists. This is far, far from a basement scenario. (Slashdot readers take note.)
The basement-development idea is also incompatible with the modern trend toward broad, open, global collaborations. Even mathematical proof, the classic area for single-person breakthroughs, has recently succumbed to the power of open collaboration (the ‘Polymath Project’, recently discussed in Nature).
The commenter also brings up another idea that should be dropped, the idea of a direct leap from accessible, starting-point technologies to the most advanced technologies that have been discussed. Because there is a myth that I have foolishly proposed this, I should explain why it, too, makes no sense.
It should be kept in mind that concepts for synthesis of diamond-like carbon-rich nanostructures involve using very rigid mechanisms to position highly reactive molecular groups in ultrahigh vacuum. Each of these properties is thoroughly incompatible with mechanisms built from moderately rigid biomolecular materials operating in aqueous environments. This incompatibility is so deep that some scientists (who evidently haven’t thought very hard about the problem or read my publications on implementation pathways, e.g., in Nanosystems) have had difficulty seeing how it is even possible to get from one to the other.
Accessible steps that make further steps accessible
The answer, of course, is that one doesn’t do so directly. It turns out, for example, that there are admirably stiff inorganic materials that crystallize spontaneously in water, and are natural targets for controlled synthesis by biomolecular systems. See, for example my posts Nanomaterials (2) and, for a critique of diamond synthesis as a starting point — which, contrary to legend, I’ve never advocated — see Nanomaterials (1).
It should also be noted that there isn’t any necessity for using diamond-like materials for anything but the most extreme applications. It’s just that diamond-like materials are especially good for many purposes, and will, in fact, be accessible — eventually.
The controversy about these materials has been a distraction. I wouldn’t have said so much about them if they hadn’t been so easy to analyze computationally, using standard molecular mechanics models, and hadn’t later come under attack by critics of my work. As often happens, the fiercest controversies have centered on questions that aren’t important.
- Part 1 — The promise that launched the field of nanotechnology
- Part 2 — Molecular Manufacturing: Where’s the progress?
- Part 3 — The Molecular Machine Path to Molecular Manufacturing (1)
- Part 4 — The Molecular Machine Path to Molecular Manufacturing (2)
- Part 5 — “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” (29 December 1959)