An urgent need for new nanotechnology policy is highlighted by breakthrough results from a recent British government funded project. For the first time ever, a group of high-level scientists assembled for the purpose of inventing something as close as they could get to the long-sought nanotechnology goal of building precise products atom by atom. The remarkably advanced projects those scientists produced -- which they hope to complete in three to five few years -- suggest that the era of molecular manufacturing could arrive far more swiftly than previously imagined.
"What this shows, even more strongly than before, is the critical necessity of additional work on implications and policy," said Mike Treder, Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN). "Existing nanotechnology policies, and most proposed policies, do not address huge new areas of concern raised by tomorrow's revolutionary manufacturing potential. That gap could be calamitous."
Nanofactories will use vast arrays of tiny machines to fasten single molecules together quickly and precisely, allowing engineers, designers, and potentially anyone else to make powerful products at the touch of a button. In a single week of intense interdisciplinary work, an "IDEAS Factory on the Software Control of Matter" produced three ground-breaking research proposals that bring the nanofactory concept closer to reality. The project was sponsored by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a national science agency that also will fund the proposals.
"If, as expected, nanofactories can be used to build more nanofactories, then the impacts on society may be extreme," said Treder. "From remarkable advances in health care, environmental repair, and poverty reduction, to severe economic disruption, political upheaval, and the possibility of a new arms race: all these implications and more must be understood. Now it appears that our time to prepare is getting shorter."
The goals of the IDEAS Factory project were audacious: to make progress toward the vision of a "matter compiler" that could build atomically precise products under computer control. The forward-looking proposals coming from the IDEAS Factory should expand expectations as to what's possible at the nanoscale, and hold the potential to accelerate the development of nanofactory systems.
"This shows that molecular manufacturing, which has been considered a far-future result of nanotechnology, is now a fruitful topic for current scientific attention," said CRN Director of Research Chris Phoenix. "We expect that the IDEAS Factory will be a trend leader, inducing other nanoscientists to use molecular manufacturing as an inspiration and target for their work."
Participants in the IDEAS Factory designed research projects using an innovative process in which scientists from many different fields work together to bypass the conventional limitations of their fields. The three proposals they developed are expected to accomplish in just a few years what might have taken twenty with traditional approaches. Funding has already been assured by the EPSRC and experimental work will begin shortly.
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (crnano.org) has been raising awareness about the severe societal and environmental implications of advanced nanotechnology, and the urgent need for new policy, since 2002. CRN is an affiliate of World Care, an international, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization. The opinions of CRN do not necessarily represent those of World Care.