I recently received an E-mail from the Foresight Institute complaining about a nanotechnology report recently released by the state of California called "Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: Opportunities and Challenges in California." The Foresight Institute, started by nanotech theorist Eric Drexler, asserts that the future of nanotechnology will be found in what it calls "molecular manufacturing"–a bottom-up approach to nanotech in which very many, very small nanomachines build materials and devices one atom or molecule at a time. The California report, though, apparently defines nanotech in a more conventional way—such as creating nanosize particles (found now in stain-resistant pants, longer-lasting tennis balls, and deeper-penetrating skin creams) or using chip-making tools to make nanosize etchings on computer semiconductors.
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One reason that Foresight and other molecular manufacturing proponents are so sensitive about this issue is that their approach was also excluded from the nanotech spending bill recently signed by President Bush. If the feds had earmarked some government dough for molecular manufacturing, it would have been easier for the embryonic field to attract private equity capital as well. And as Drexler told me in a follow-up E-mail, he believes it has much greater potential than more conventional nanotech.
"[Molecular manufacturing] will be able to make a far wider range of products than other nanotechnologies, and at a far lower cost," Drexler wrote. "It is molecular manufacturing—not nanoparticles, nanolithography, or nanoporous solids—that will provide desktop nanofactories able to make anything from billion-CPU laptop computers to high-efficiency solar-cell roofing shingles to nanoscale robotic devices for medical use. The capabilities and products of molecular manufacturing are what the public and Congress think ‘nanotechnology’ is about."
Now Drexler’s almost certainly right that his version of nanotech is what the average person would describe as nanotech, if asked. Drexlerian nanotech is what is usually seen in science fiction, where tiny, self-replicating nanobots can create almost anything from scratch. And if you search for info about nanotech at such popular sites at Wikipedia and HowStuffWorks, you’ll read about molecular machines and molecular manufacturing. Yet most of what is happening in academia and industry is not directly related to molecular manufacturing but is rather an extension of more traditional chemistry and materials science.
Such mainstream nanotech might also pay huge benefits to society. Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley—a nanomachine skeptic, to say the least—thinks top-down nanotech will, for instance, play a critical role in helping deal with the planet’s energy needs. Wires made of superconducting carbon nanotubes would help move excess electrical power efficiently from energy-rich to energy-poor areas, while nanostructured materials would be key to creating more-efficient solar cells. As Drexler puts it, "[Nanotech] has been used to relabel the most advanced and valuable work in several pre-existing fields. It will lead to some pretty marvelous things, because it was used to relabel and hype some pretty marvelous research programs."