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Molecular Manufacturing Moves to Mainstream

Chris Phoenix
Director of Research, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Molecular manufacturing is a way to build nanoscale machinery. It involves controlling individual molecule-building reactions to form complex molecular structures. If the machinery thus constructed can be used to do the molecule-building, then a few machines could be used to make as many as required. This implies the rapid development of large-scale manufacturing.

To date, molecular manufacturing has been largely ignored and even scoffed at. A lot of advanced, wild, and even impossible ideas have become associated with it. Nanoscale technology researchers have another reason to downplay it: they are afraid of public fear hurting their work. For example, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative has not yet funded any proposal directed at developing it.

Recently, there has been an effort to demystify molecular manufacturing and to show that it is neither impossible nor insignificant, but simply a very powerful approach to nanoscale construction. My organization, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, has been at the forefront of this effort. We have made steady progress, and expect to make much more progress in the coming year.

In 2005, we expect that scientists will pay increasing attention to molecular manufacturing, evaluating the actual proposals and theories. Institutions also may begin to pay attention. Serious attention to the actual proposals of molecular manufacturing will have a self-reinforcing effect, making it more acceptable for other researchers and institutions to pay attention to it.

This will open the door to researching the implications that molecular manufacturing could have. This work is urgent, since no one knows how rapidly a general-purpose manufacturing technology could be developed. Those who have studied it most closely fear that development could happen with disruptive speed and power, and new institutions may need to be created in advance to deal with new problems.

More attention also brings us closer to openly acknowledged development. Despite the worrisome possibilities, we believe this is probably a good thing. Nanoscale technologies are rapidly making molecular manufacturing more accessible, increasing the possibility of a successful secret attempt—which seems more dangerous than an open attempt. Also, the later it is developed, the faster it will be possible to develop it, and part of the problem is that excessive speed would leave no time for wise policymaking. A final reason to favor early open development is that molecular manufacturing's access to the nanoscale could help to solve a lot of pressing global problems. For all these reasons, we think that more attention to and respect for molecular manufacturing will be a positive development in 2005.

This essay is original and was specifically prepared for publication at Future Brief. A brief biography of Chris Phoenix can be found at our main Commentary page. Recent essays written by Mr. Phoenix can be found at his Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. Some earlier essays are archived at Nanotechnology Now. He receives e-mail at cphoenix@crnano.org. Other websites are welcome to link to this essay, with proper credit given to Future Brief and Mr. Phoenix. This page will remain posted on the Internet indefinitely at this web address to provide a stable page for those linking to it.

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© 2004, Christopher Phoenix, all rights reserved.

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