The tour of the molecular world showed some products of molecular manufacturing, but didn't show how they were made. The technologies you remember from the old days have mostly been replacedbut how did this happen? The Silicon Valley Faire is advertised as "An authentic theme park capturing life, work, and play in the early Breakthrough years." Since "work" must include manufacturing, it seems worth a visit.
A broad dome caps the park "To fully capture the authentic sights, sounds, and smells of the era," the tourguide politely says. Inside, the clothes and hairstyles, the newspaper headlines, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, all look much as they did before your long nap. A light haze obscures the buildings on the far side of the dome, your eyes burn slightly, and the air smells truly authentic.
The Nanofabricators, Inc., plant offers the main display of early nanotechnology. As you near the building, the tourguide mentions that this is indeed the original manufacturing plant, given landmark status over twenty years ago, then made the centerpiece of the Silicon Valley Faire ten years later, when . . . With a few taps, you reset the pocket tourguide to speak up less often.
As people file into the Nanofabricator plant, there's a moment of hushed quiet, a sense of walking into history. Nanofabricators: home of the SuperChip, the first mass-market product of nanotechnology. It was the huge memory capacity of SuperChips that made possible the first Pocket Library.
This section of the plant now houses a series of displays, including working replicas of early products. Picking up a Pocket Library, you find that it's not only the size of a wallet, but about the same weight. Yet it has enough memory to record every volume in the Library of Congresssomething like a million times the capacity of a personal computer from 1990. It opens with a flip, the two-panel screen lights up, and a world of written knowledge is at your fingertips. Impressive.
"Wow, can you believe these things?" says another tourist as he fingers a Pocket Library. "Hardly any video, no 3-Djust words, sound, and flat pictures. And the cost! I wouldn't've bought `em for my kids at that price!"
Your tourguide quietly states the price: about what you remember for a top-of-the-line TV set from 1990. This isn't the cheap manufacturing promised by mature nanotechnology, but it seems like a pretty good price for a library. Hmm . . . how did they work out the copyrights and royalties? There's a lot more to this product than just the technology . . .
The next room displays more technology. Here in the workroom where SuperChips were first made, early nanotech manufacturing is spread out on display. The whole setup is surprisingly quiet and ordinary. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, chip plants had carefully controlled clean rooms with gowns and masks on workers and visitors, special workstations, and carefully crafted air flows to keep dust away from products. This room has none of that. It's even a little grubby.
In the middle of a big square table are a half-dozen steel tanks, about the size and shape of old-fashioned milk cans. Each can has a different label identifying its contents: MEMORY BLOCKS, DATA-TRANSMISSION BLOCKS, INTERFACE BLOCKS. These are the parts needed for building up the chip. Clear plastic tubes, carrying clear and tea-colored liquids, emerge from the mouths of the milk cans and drape across the table. The tubes end in fist-sized boxes mounted above shallow dishes sitting in a ring around the cans. As the different liquids drip into each dish, a beater like a kitchen mixer swirls the liquid. In each dish, nanomachines are building SuperChips.
A Nanofab "engineer," dressed in period clothing complete with name badge, is setting up a dish to begin building a new chip. "This," he says, holding up a blank with a pair of tweezers, "is a silicon chip like the ones made with pre-breakthrough technology. Companies here in this valley made chips like these by melting silicon, freezing it into lumps, sawing the lumps into slices, polishing the slices, and then going through a long series of chemical and photographic steps. When they were done, they had a pattern of lines and blobs of different materials on the surface. Even the smallest of these blobs contained billions of atoms, and it took several blobs working together to store a single bit of information. A chip this size, the size of your fingernail, could store only a fraction of a billion bits. Here at Nanofab, we used bare silicon chips as a base for building up nanomemory. The picture on the wall here shows the surface of a blank chip: no transistors, no memory circuits, just fine wires to connect up with the nanomemory we built on top. The nanomemory, even in the early days, stored thousands of billions of bits. And we made them like this, but a thousand at a time" He places the chip in the dish, presses a button, and the dish begins to fill with liquid.
"A few years latter," he adds, "we got rid of the silicon chips entirely"he props up a sign saying THIS CHIP BUILD BEGAN AT: 2:15 P.M., ESTIMATED COMPLETION TIME: 1:00 A.M." and we sped up the construction process by a factor of a thousand."
The chips in the dishes all look pretty much the same except for color. The new chip looks like dull metal. The only difference you can see in the older chips, further along in the process, is a smooth rectangular patch covered by a film of darker material. An animated flowchart on the wall shows how layer upon layer of nanomemory building blocks are grabbed from solution and laid down on the surface to make that film. The tourguide explains that the energy for this process, like the energy for molecular machines within cells, comes from dissolved chemicalsfrom oxygen and fuel molecules. The total amount of energy needed here is trivial, because the amount of product is trivial: at the end of the process, the total thickness of nanomemory structurethe memory store for a Pocket Libraryamounts to one-tenth the thickness of a sheet of paper, spread over an area smaller than a postage stamp.
The animated flowchart showed nanomemory building blocks as big things containing about a hundred thousand atoms apiece (it takes a moment to remember that this is still submicroscopic). The build process in the dishes stacked these blocks to make the memory film on the SuperChip, but how were the blocks themselves built? The hard part in this molecular-manufacturing business has got to be at the bottom of the whole process, at the stage where molecules are put together to make large, complex parts.
The Silicon Valley Faire offers simulations of this molecular assembly process, and at no extra charge. From the tourguide, you learn that modern assembly processes are complex; that earlier processeslike those used by Nanofabricators, Inc. used clever-but-obscure engineering tricks; and that the simplest, earliest concepts were never built. Why not begin at the beginning? A short walk takes you to the Museum of Antique Concepts, the first wing of the Museum of Molecular Manufacturing.
A peek inside the first hall shows several people strolling around wearing loosely fitting jumpsuits with attached goggles and gloves, staring at nothing and playing mime with invisible objects. Oh well, why not join the fools' parade? Stepping through the doorway while wearing the suit is entirely different. The goggles show a normal world outside the door and a molecular world inside. Now you, too, can see and feel the exhibit that fills the hall. It's much like the earlier simulated molecular world: it shares the standard settings for size, strength, and speed. Again, atoms seem 40 million times larger, about the size of your fingertips. This simulation is a bit less thorough than the last wasyou can feel simulated objects, but only with your gloved hands. Again, everything seems to be made of quivering masses of fused marbles, each an atom.
"Welcome," says the tourguide, "to a 1990 concept for a molecular-manufacturing plant. These exploratory engineering designs were never intended for actual use, yet they demonstrate the basics of molecular manufacturing: making parts, testing them, and assembling them."
Machinery fills the hall. Overall, the sight is reminiscent of an automated factory of the 1980s or 1990s. It seems clear enough what must be going on: Big machines stand beside a conveyor belt loaded with half-finished-looking blocks of some material (this setup looks much like Figure 2); the machines must do some sort of work on the blocks. Judging by the conveyor belt, the blocks eventually move from one arm to the next until they turn a corner and enter the next hall.
FIGURE 2: ASSEMBLER WITH FACTORY ON CHIP
A factorylarge enough to make over 10 million nanocomputers per day would fit on the edge one of today's integrated circuits. Inset shows an assembler arm together with workpiece on a conveyor belt.
Since nothing is real, the exhibit can't be damaged, so you walk up to a machine and give it a poke. It seems as solid as the wall of the nanocomputer in the previous tour. Suddenly, you notice something odd: no bombarding air molecules and no droplets of waterin fact, no loose molecules anywhere. Every atom seems to be part of a mechanical system, quivering thermal vibration, but otherwise perfectly controlled. Everything here is like the nanocomputer or like the tough little gear; none of it resembles the loosely coiled protein or the roiling mass of the living cell.
The conveyor belt seems motionless. At regular intervals along the belt are blocks of material under construction: workpieces. The nearest block is about a hundred marble-bumps wide, so it must contain something like 100 x 100 x 100 atoms, a full million. This block looks strangely familiar, with its rods, crank, and the rest. It's a nanocomputeror rather, a blocklike part of a nanocomputer still under construction.
Standing alongside the pieces of nanocomputer on the conveyor belt, dominating the hall, is a row of huge mechanisms. Their trunks rise from the floor, as thick as old oaks. Even though they bend over, they rear overhead. "Each machine," your tourguide says, "is the arm of a general-purpose molecular assembler.
One assembler arm is bent over with its tip pressed to a block on the conveyor belt. Walking closer, you see molecular assembly in action. The arm ends in a fist-sized knob with a few protruding marbles, like knuckles. Right now, two quivering marblesatomsare pressed into a small hollow in the block. As you watch, the two spheres shift, snapping into place in the block with a quick twitch of motion: a chemical reaction. The assembler arm just stands there, nearly motionless. The fist has lost two knuckles, and the block of nanocomputer is two atoms larger.
The tourguide holds forth: "This general-purpose assembler concept resembles, in essence, the factory robots of the 1980s. It is a computer-controlled mechanical arm that moves molecular tools according to a series of instructions. Each tool is like a single-shot stapler or rivet gun. It has a handle for the assembler to grab and comes loaded with a little bit of mattera few atomswhich it attaches to the workpiece by a chemical reaction." This is like the rejoining of the protein chain in the earlier tour.
The atoms seemed to jump into place easily enough; can they jump out of place just as easily? By now the assembler arm has crept back from the surface, leaving a small gap, so you can reach in and poke at the newly added atoms. Poking and prying do no good: When you push as hard as you can (with your simulated fingers as strong as steel), the atoms don't budge by a visible amount. Strong molecular bonds hold them in place.
Your pocket tourguidewhich has been applying the power of a thousand 1990s supercomputers to the task of deciding when to speak upremarks, "Molecular bonds hold things together. In strong, stable materials atoms are either bonded, or they aren't, with no possibilities in between. Assemblers work by making and breaking bonds, so each step either succeeds perfectly or fails completely. In pre-breakthrough manufacturing, parts were always made and put together with small inaccuracies. These could add up to wreck product quality. At the molecular scale, these problems vanish. Since each step is perfectly precise, little errors can't add up. The process either works, or it doesn't."
But what about those definite, complete failures? Fired by scientific curiosity, you walk to the next assembler, grab the tip, and shake it. Almost nothing happens. When you shove as hard as you can, the tip moves by about one-tenth of an atomic diameter, then springs back. "Thermal vibrations can cause mistakes by causing parts to come together and form bonds in the wrong place," the tourguide remarks. "Thermal vibrations make floppy objects bend further than stiff ones, and so these assembler arms were designed to be thick and stubby to make them very stiff. Error rates can be kept to one in a trillion, and so small products can be perfectly regular and perfectly identical. Large products can be almost perfect, having just a few atoms out of place." This should mean high reliability. Oddly, most of the things you've been seeing outside have looked pretty ordinarynot slick, shiny, and perfect, but rough and homey. They must have been manufactured that way, or made by hand. Slick, shiny things must not impress anyone anymore.
By now, the assembler arm has moved by several atom-widths. Through the translucent sides of the arm you can see that the arm is full of mechanisms: twirling shafts, gears, and large, slowly turning rings that drive the rotation and extension of joints along the trunk. The whole system is a huge, articulated robot arm. The arm is big because the smallest parts are the size of marbles, and the machinery inside that makes it move and bend has many, many parts. Inside, another mechanism is at work: The arm now ends in a hole, and you can see the old, spent molecular tool being retracted through a tube down the middle.
Patience, patience. Within a few minutes, a new tool is on its way back up the tube. Eventually, it reaches the end. Shafts twirl, gears turn, and clamps lock the tool in position. Other shafts twirl, and the arm slowly leans up against the workpiece again at a new site. Finally, with a twitch of motion, more atoms jump across, and the block is again just a little bit bigger. The cycle begins again. This huge arm seems amazingly slow, but the standard simulation settings have shifted speeds by a factor of over 400 million. A few minutes of simulation time correspond to less than a millionth of a second of real time, so this stiff, sluggish arm is completing about a million operations per second.
Peering down at the very base of the assembler arm, you can get a glimpse of yet more assembler-arm machinery underneath the floor: Electric motors spin, and a nanocomputer chugs away, rods pumping furiously. All these rods and gears move quickly, sliding and turning many times for every cycle of the ponderous arm. This seems inefficient; the mechanical vibrations must generate a lot of heat, so the electric motors must draw a lot of power. Having a computer control each arm is a lot more awkward now than it was in pre-breakthrough years. Back then, a robot arm was big and expensive and a computer was a cheap chip; now the computer is bigger than the arm. There must be a better waybut then, this is the Museum of Antique Concepts.
Where do the blocks go, once the assemblers have finished with them? Following the conveyor belt past a dozen arms, you stroll to the end of the hall, turn the corner, and find yourself on a balcony overlooking a vaster hall beyond. Here, just off the conveyor belt, a block sits in a complex fixture. Its parts are moving, and an enormous arm looms over it like a construction crane. After a moment, the tourguide speaks up and confirms your suspicion: "After manufacturing, each block is tested. Large arms pick up properly made blocks. In this hall, the larger arms assemble almost a thousand blocks of various kinds to make a complete nanocomputer.
The grand hall has its own conveyor belt, bearing a series of partially completed nanocomputers. Arrayed along this grand belt is a row of grand arms, able to swing to and fro, to reach down to lesser conveyor belts, pluck million-atom blocks from testing stations, and plug them into the grand workpieces, the nanocomputers under construction. The belt runs the length of the hall, and at the end, finished nanocomputers turn a cornerto a yet-grander hall beyond?
After gazing at the final-assembly hall for several minutes, you notice that nothing seems to have moved. Mere patience won't do: at the rate the smaller arms moved in the hall behind you, each block must take months to complete, and the grand block-handling arms are taking full advantage of the leisure this provides. Building a computer, start to finish, might take a terribly long time. Perhaps as long as the blink of an eye.
Molecular assemblers build blocks that go to block assemblers. The block assemblers build computers, which go to system assemblers, which build systems, whichat least one path from molecules to large products seems clear enough. If a car were assembled by normal-sized robots from a thousand pieces, each piece having been assembled by smaller robots from a thousand smaller pieces, and so on, down and down, then only ten levels of assembly process would separate cars from molecules. Perhaps, around a few more corners and down a few more ever-larger halls, you would see a post-breakthrough car in the making, with unrecognizable engine parts and comfortable seating being snapped together in a century-long process in a hall so vast that the Pacific Ocean would be a puddle in the corner . . .
Just ten steps in size; eight, starting with blocks as big as the ones made in the hall behind you. The molecular world seems closer, viewed this way.
Stepping back into that hall, you wonder how the process begins. In every cycle of their sluggish motion, each molecular assembler gets a fresh tool through a tube from somewhere beneath the floor, and that somewhere is where the story of molecular precision begins. And so you ask, "Where do the tools come from?", and the tourguide replies, "You might want to take the elevator to your left."
Stepping out of the elevator and into the basement, you see a wide hall full of small conveyor belts and pulleys; a large pipe runs down the middle. A plaque on the wall says, "Mechanochemical processing concept, circa 1990." As usual, all the motions seem rather slow, but in this hall everything that seems designed to move is visibly in motion. The general flow seems to be away from the pipe, through several steps, and then up through the ceiling toward the hall of assemblers above.
After walking over to the pipe, you can see that it is nearly transparent. Inside is a seething chaos of small molecules: the wall of the pipe is the boundary between loose molecules and controlled ones, but the loose molecules are well confined. In this simulation, your fingertips are like small molecules. No matter how hard you push, there's no way to drive your finger through the wall of the pipe. Every few paces along the pipe a fitting juts out, a housing with a mechanically driven rotating thing, exposed to the liquid inside the pipe, but also exposed to a belt running over one of the pulleys, embedded in the housing. It's hard to see exactly what is happening.
The tourguide speaks up, saying, "Pockets on the rotor capture single molecules from the liquid in the pipe. Each rotor pocket has a size and shape that fits just one of the several different kinds of molecule in the liquid, so the process is rather selective. Captured molecules are then pushed into the pockets on the belt that's wrapped over the pulley there, then"
"Enough," you say. Fine, it singles out molecules and sticks them into this maze of machinery. Presumably, the machines can sort the molecules to make sure the right kinds go to the right places.
The belts loop back and forth carrying big, knobby masses of molecules. Many of the pulleysrollers?press two belts together inside a housing with auxiliary rollers. While you are looking at one of these, the tourguide says, "Each knob on a belt is a mechanochemical-processing device. When two knobs on different belts are pressed together in the right way, they are designed to transfer molecular fragments from one to another by means of a mechanically forced chemical reaction. In this way, small molecules are broken down, recombined, and finally joined to molecular tools of the sort used in the assemblers in the hall above. In this device here, the rollers create a pressure equal to the pressure found halfway to the center of the Earth, speeding a reaction that"
"Fine, fine," you say. Chemists in the old days managed to make amazingly complex molecules just by mixing different chemicals together in solution in the right order under the right conditions. Here, molecules can certainly be brought together in the right order, and the conditions are much better controlled. It stands to reason that this carefully designed maze of pulleys and belts can do a better job of molecule processing than a test tube full of disorganized liquid ever could. From a liquid, through a sorter, into a mill, and out as tools: this seems to be the story of molecule processing. All the belts are loops, so the machinery just goes around and around, carrying and transforming molecular parts.
This system of belts seems terribly simple and efficient, compared to the ponderous arms driven by frantic computers in the hall above. Why stop with making simple tools? You must have muttered this, because the tourguide speaks up again and says, "The Special-Assembler Exhibit shows another early molecular-manufacturing concept that uses the principles of this molecule-processing system to build large, complex objects. If a system is building only a single product, there is no need to have computers and flexible arms move parts around. It is far more efficient to build a machine in which everything just moves on belts at a constant speed, adding small parts to larger ones and then bringing the larger ones together as you saw at the end of the hall above."
This does seem like a more sensible way to churn out a lot of identical products, but it sounds like just more of the same. Gears like fused marbles, belts like coarse beadwork, drive shafts, pulleys, machines and more machines. In a few places, marbles snap into new patterns to prepare a tool or make a product. Roll, roll, chug, chug, pop, snap, then roll and chug some more.
As you leave the simulation hall, you ask, "Is there anything important I've missed in this molecular manufacturing tour?"
The tourguide launches into a list: "Yesthe inner workings of assembler arms, with drive shafts, worm gears, and harmonic drives; the use of Diels-Alder reactions, interfacial free-radial chain reactions, and dative-bond formation to join blocks together in the larger-scale stages of assembly; different kinds of mechanochemical processing for preparing reactive molecular tools; the use of staged-cascade methods in providing feed-molecules of the right kinds with near-perfect reliability; the differences between efficient and inefficient steps in molecular processing; the use of redundancy to ensure reliability in large systems despite sporadic damage; modern methods of building large objects from smaller blocks; modern electronic nanocomputers; modern methods for"
"Enough!" you say, and the tourguide falls silent as you pitch it into a recycling bin. A course in molecular manufacturing isn't what you're looking for right now; the general idea seems clear enough. It's time to take another look at the world on a more normal scale. Houses, roads, buildings, even the landscape looked different out there beyond the Faire domeless crowded, paved, and plowed than you remember. But why? The history books (well, they're more than just books) say that molecular manufacturing made a big difference; perhaps now the changes will make more sense. Yes, it's time to leave.
As you toss your goggled, gloved jumpsuit into another bin, a striking dark-haired woman is taking a fresh one from a rack. She wears a jacket emblazoned with the name "Desert Rose NanoManufacturing."
"How'd you like it?" she asks with a smile.
"Pretty amazing," you say.
"Yes," she agrees. "I saw this sim back when I was taking my first molecular-manufacturing class. I swore I'd never design anything so clunky! This whole setup really brings back the memoriesI can't wait to see if it's as crude as I remember." She steps into the simulation hall and closes the door.
[See Nanotechnology in Manufacturing, by John Walker]Molecular manufacturing will orchestrate atoms into products of symphonic complexity, but modern manufacturing mostly makes loud noises. These figurative noises are sometimes all too literal: A crack in a metal forging grows under stress, a wing fails, and a passenger jet crashes from the sky. A chemical reaction goes out of control, heat and pressure build, and a poisonous blast shakes the countryside. A lifesaving product cannot be made, a heart fails, and a hospital's heart-monitoring machine signals the end with a high-pitched wail.
|MACROSCOPIC AND MOLECULAR COMPONENTS|
|struts, beams, casins||transmit force, hold positions||cell walls, microtubules|
|cables||transmit tension||collagen, silk|
|fasteners, glue||connect parts||intermolecular forces|
|solenoids, actuators||move things||muscle actin, myosin|
|motors||turn shafts||flagellar motor|
|drive shafts||transmit torque||bacterial flagella|
|bearings||support moving parts||single bonds|
|clamps||hold workpieces||enzymatic binding sites|
|tools||modify workpieces||enzymes, reactive molecules|
|production lines||control devices||enzyme systems, ribosomes|
|numerical control systems||store and read programs||genetic system|
|Adapted from K. E. Drexler, Molecular engineering: An approach to the development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 78 (1981) pp. 5275-78.|
Even today, public acceptance of man's coming exploration of space is slow. It is considered an event our children may experience, but certainly not one that we shall see.
E. Bergaust and W. Beller
From the foreword to Satellite!, written July 1957
Sputnik orbits Earth, October 1957
Footprints on Moon, July 1969
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