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The Prospects of Molecular Manufacturing

Published in Nanomachines Development, Nanomedicine.

A deep dive into technical and biological bases for developing molecular machinery.

The width of an individual DNA strand is around 2.5 nanometers. The smallest transistors that we can produce today are around 3 nanometers wide. Although we are already capable of manufacturing some devices at levels of precision rivaling the cell, there’s plenty of room for more innovation. In a landmark lecture given by Richard Feynman at Caltech in 1959, he discusses the theoretical limits of manufacturing and notes that the possibilities really go down to the level of manipulating individual atoms to create the structures and devices we want.

Feynman didn’t get too carried away with speculation, but he made it clear that the world would look very different if we one day attained the ability to construct arbitrary structures atom by atom. The talk preceded the launch of shows like Star Trek, which dazzled imaginations with machines like the replicator, capable of synthesizing meals — and martinis — on demand. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age later envisioned a world where households replaced garbage cans with ‘matter compilers’ which recycled waste into its constituent atoms to recycle them for future use.

Of course, atomic or molecular scale manufacturing wouldn’t just revolutionize domestic life, it would have consequences across all domains of industry with massive implications for chemistry, material science, construction, medicine, and biology writ large. Two prominent thinkers exploring molecular machinery, J. Storrs Hall and Robert Freitas, estimated that “mature nanotechnology could replicate the entire capital stock of the United States – ‘every single building, factory, highway, railroad, bridge, airplane, train, automobile, truck, and ship’ – in a mere week.”