“Productive Nanosystems: Launching The Technology Roadmap” Recap And Discussion Post At CRNano.org

What began as a request for my $0.02 on the SME Productive Nanosystem Roadmap Conference turned into enough text to fill a small essay, which Mike Treder offered to make the feature essay for the October newsletter at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (which I gladly accepted). I did what I could to keep it self-contained, but linked it as much as appropriate in the usual manner.

Speaking of links, Chris Phoenix practically polished the letters off his keyboard live blogging the entire SME Roadmap Conference. The list of posts from the CRNano blog is available HERE, including his comments on my own near super-sonic talk (What can I say? It’s fun stuff and I get excited). I’m working on a shortened version of the slides and text for an upcoming slidecast, but will blog that when it finally gets posted).

I repost here only for my own records. If, by any crazy chance, you want to link anything from this, please do so using the version hosted at CRNano.org in their October newsletter (or whatever comes up regarding the October newsletter as a whole on their ever-topical blog. They deserve the press and linkage, certainly more than I). If you didn’t get their newsletter by email, you should remedy that by subscribing!

Guest Science Essay: Exploring The Productive Nanosystems Roadmap

Damian Allis, Research Professor of Chemistry at Syracuse University and Senior Scientist for Nanorex, Inc.

What follows is a brief series of notes and observations about the Roadmap Conference, some of the activities leading up to it, and a few points about the state of some of the research that the Roadmap is hoping to address. All views expressed are my own and not necessarily those of other Roadmap participants, collaborators, my affiliated organizations (though I hope to not straddle that fine line between “instigation” and “inflaming” in anything I present below).

The humor is not lost on me that the default Microsoft Word replacement for “nanoscale” is “nonsocial.”

Some Opening Praise For Foresight

There are, basically, three formats for scientific conferences. The first is discipline-intensive, where everyone attending needs no introduction and certainly needs no introductory slides (see the division rosters at most any National ACS conference). The only use of showing an example of Watson-Crick base pairing at a DNA nanotechnology conference of this format is to find out who found the most aesthetically-pleasing image on “the Google.”

There is the middle-ground, where a single conference will have multiple sessions divided into half-day or so tracks, allowing the carbon nanotube chemists to see work in their field, then (and often do) spend the rest of the conference arguing points and comparing notes in the hotel lobby while the DNA scientists occupy the conference room. The FNANO conference is of a format like this, which is an excellent way to run a conference when scientists dominate the attendee list.

Finally, there is the one-speaker-per-discipline approach, where introductory material consumes roughly 1/3 of each talk and attendees are given a taste of a broad range of research areas. Such conferences are nontrivial to organize for individual academics within a research plan but are quite straightforward for external organizations with suitable budgets to put together.

To my mind, Foresight came as close to perfecting this final approach for nanoscience as I’ve ever seen or attended over the course of its Conferences on Molecular Nanotechnology. Much like the organizational Roadmap meetings and the final conference itself, these Foresight conferences served as two-day reviews of the entire field of nanoscience by people directly involved in furthering the cause. In my own case, research ideas and collaborations were formed that continue to this day that I am sure would not have otherwise. The attendee lists were far broader than the research itself, mixing industry (the people turning research into products), government (the people turning ideas into funding opportunities), and media (the people bringing new discoveries to the attention of the public). Enough cannot be said about the use of such broad-base conferences, which are instrumental in endeavors to bring the variety of research areas currently under study into a single focus, such as in the form of a technology Roadmap.

So, Why A “Productive Nanosystems” Roadmap?

The semiconductor industry has its Roadmap. The hydrogen storage community has its Roadmap. The quantum computing and cryptography communities have their Roadmaps. There are major research and development projects in groundbreaking areas that are not in obvious competition with one another but see the need for all to benefit from all of the developments within a field (in spirit, anyway). How could a single individual or research group plan 20 years into the future (quantum computing) or plan for the absolute limit of a technology (semiconductor)?

The Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems (TRPN) falls into the former category, an effort to as much take a snapshot of current research and very short-term pathways towards nanosystems in general as it is to begin to plot research directions that take advantage of the continued cross-disciplinary efforts now begun in National Labs and large research universities towards increasing complexity in nanoscale study.

On one far end of the spectrum, the “Productive Nanosystem” in all of its atomically-precise glory, as envisioned by many forward-thinking scientists, is a distant, famously debated, and occasionally ridiculed idea that far exceeds our current understanding within any area of the physical or natural sciences. Ask the workers on the first Model T assembly line how they expected robotics to affect the livelihoods and the productivity of the assembly lines of their grandchildren’s generation, and you can begin to comprehend just how incomprehensible the notion of a fully developed nanofactory or medical nanodevice is to even people working in nanoscience (either of the potential for such a device or for the many difficulties still awaiting the Scientific Method towards that ultimate end).

On the other end of the spectrum (and the primary reason I think in molecular manufacturing), it seems rather narrow-minded and famously short-sighted to believe that we will never be able to control the fabrication of matter at the atomic scale. The prediction that scientists will still be unable in 50 years to abstract a carbon atom from a diamond lattice or build a computer processing unit by placing individual atoms within an insulating lattice of other atoms seems absurd. That is, of course, not to say that molecular manufacturing-based approaches to the positional control of individual atoms for fabrication purposes will be the BEST approach to generating various materials, devices, or complicated nanosystems (yes, I’m IN the field and I state that to be a perfectly sound possibility). To say that we’ll never have that kind of control, however, that’s a bold statement that assumes that scientific progress will hit some kind of technological wall that, given our current ability to manipulate individual hydrogen atoms (the smallest atoms we have to work with) with positional control on atomic lattices, seems to be sufficiently porous that atomically precise manufacturing, including the mechanical approaches envisioned in molecular manufacturing research, will continue on undaunted. At the maturation point of all possible approaches to atomic manipulation, engineers can make the final decision of how best to use the available technologies. Basically and bluntly, futurists are planning the perfect paragraph in their heads while researchers are still putting the keyboard together. That, of course, has been and will ALWAYS be the case at every step in human (and other!) development. And I mean that in the most positive sense of the comparison. Some of my best friends are futurists and provide some of the best reasons for putting together that keyboard in the first place.

Perhaps, the sea change of the next 10 years will involve molecular manufacturing antagonists beginning to agree that “better methods exist for getting A or B” instead of now arguing that “molecular manufacturing towards A and B is a waste of a thesis.” Keep track of those blogs that don’t delete posts (or keep count of those that do)!

That said, it is important to recognize that the TRPN is NOT a molecular manufacturing Roadmap, rather a Roadmap that serves to guide the development of nanosystems capable of atomic precision in the manufacturing processes of molecules and larger systems. The difference is largely semantic, founded in the descriptors of molecular manufacturing as some (a small group) of us have come to know and love it.


If we take the working definitions from the Roadmap (test Tuesday)…

Nanosystems are interacting nanoscale structures, components, and devices.

Functional nanosystems are nanosystems that process material, energy, or information.

Atomically precise structures are structures that consist of a specific arrangement of atoms.

Atomically precise technology (APT) is any technology that exploits atomically precise structures of substantial complexity.

Atomically precise functional nanosystems (APFNs) are functional nanosystems that incorporate one or more nanoscale components that have atomically precise structures of substantial complexity.

Atomically precise self-assembly (APSA) is any process in which atomically precise structures align spontaneously and bind to form an atomically precise structure of substantial complexity.

Atomically precise manufacturing (APM) is any manufacturing technology that provides the capability to make atomically precise structures, components, and devices under programmable control.

Atomically precise productive nanosystems (APPNs) are functional nanosystems that make atomically precise structures, components, and devices under programmable control, that is, they are advanced functional nanosystems that perform atomically precise manufacturing.

The last definition is the clincher. Atomic precision (which means you know the properties of a system at the atomic level and can, given the position of one atom, know absolutely about the rest of the system) and programmable control (meaning information is translated into matter assembly). Atomic precision does not mean “mostly (7,7) carbon nanotubes of more-or-less 20 nm lengths,” “chemical reactions of more than 90% yield,” “gold nanoparticles of about 100 nm diameters,” or “molecular nanocrystals with about 1000 molecules.” That is NOT atomic precision, only our current level of control over matter. I am of the same opinion as J. Fraser Stoddart, who described the state of chemistry (in his Feynman Experimental Prize lecture) as “an 18 month old” learning the words of chemistry but unable to speak the short sentences of supramolecular assembly and simple functional chemical systems, make paragraphs of complex devices from self-assembling or directed molecules, or the novels that approach the scales of nanofactories, entire cells, or whatever hybrid system first can be pointed to by all scientists as a first true productive nanosystem. Plainly, there is no elegant, highly developed field in the physical or natural sciences. None. Doesn’t exist, and anyone arguing otherwise is acknowledging that progress in their field is dead in the water. Even chiseled stone was the state-of-the-art at one point.

[Molecular manufacturing-biased paragraph ahead] The closest thing we know of towards the productive nanosystem end is the ribosome, a productive nanosystem that takes information (mRNA) and turns it into matter (peptides) using a limit set of chemical reactions (amide bond formation) and a very limited set of building materials (amino acids) to make a very narrow range of products (proteins) which just happen to, in concert, lead to living organisms (and a good thing, too). The ribosome serves as another important example for the Roadmap. Atomic precision in materials and products does NOT mean absolute positional knowledge in an engineering, fab facility manner. Most cellular processes do not require knowledge of the location of any component, only that those components will eventually come into Brownian-driven contact. Molecular manufacturing proponents often point to the ribosome as “the example” among reasons to believe that engineered matter is possible with atomic precision. The logical progression from ribosome to diamondoid nanofactory, if that progression exists on a well-behaved wavefunction (continuous, finite (yeesh), with pleasant first derivatives), is a series of substantial leaps of technological progress that molecular manufacturing opponents believe may/can/will never be made. Fortunately, most of them are not involved in research towards an molecular manufacturing end and so are not providing examples of how it cannot be done, while those of us doing molecular manufacturing research are both showing the potential, and the potential pitfalls, all the while happy to be doing the dirty work for the opponents in the interest in pushing the field along.

[Back on track] It is difficult to imagine that any single discipline will contain within its practitioners all of the technology and know-how to provide the waiting world a productive nanosystem of any kind. The synthetic know-how to break and form chemical bonds, the supramolecular understanding to be able to predict how surfaces may interact as either part of self-assembly processes or as part of mechanical assembly, the systems design to understand how the various parts will come together, the physical and quantum chemistry to explain what’s actually happening and recommend improvements as part of the design and modeling process, the characterization equipment to follow both device assembly and manufacturing. Each of these aspects relevant to the assembly and operations of productive nanosystems are, in isolation, areas of current research that many researchers individually devote their entire lives to and that are all still very much in development.

The many branches of science are beginning to merge, perhaps the first formal efforts at systems design among the many disciplines and likely to be considered the ACTUAL beginning of experimental nanotechnology. The interdisciplinaritization (yes, made that one up myself) of scientific research is being pushed hard at major research institutions by way of the development of Research Centers, large-scale facilities that intentionally house numerous departments or simply broad ranges of individual research. Like research efforts into atomically precise manufacturing, the pursuit of interdisciplinary research is a combination of bottom-up and top-down approaches, with the bottom-up effort a result of individual researchers collaborating on new projects as ideas and opportunities allow and the top-down efforts a result of research universities funding the building of Research Centers and, as an important addition, state and federal funding agencies providing grant opportunities supporting multi-disciplinary efforts and facilities.

But is that enough? Considering all of the varied research being performed in the world, is it enough that unionized cats are herding themselves into small packs to pursue various ends, or is there some greater benefit to having a document that not only helps to put their research into the context of the larger field of all nanoscience research, but also helps them draw connections to other efforts? Will some cats choose to herd themselves when presented with a good reason?

The Roadmap is not only a document that describes approaches to place us on the way to Productive Nanosystems. It is also a significant summary of current nanoscale research that came out of the three National Lab Working Group meetings. As one might expect, these meetings were very much along the lines of a typical Foresight Conference, where every half hour saw a research presentation on a completely different subject that, by all providing the foundation for the development of pathways and future directions, were all found to have intersections. The same is true of the research and application talks at the official SME release conference. It’s almost a law of science. Put two researchers into a room and, eventually, a joint project will emerge.

But Don’t Take My Word For It…

I’m going to skip many, many details, inviting you, the reader, to check out the Roadmap proper when it’s made available online and read through Chris Phoenix’s live-blogging. As for what I will make some mention of…

All Hands On The Wheel – Pathways Panel

The last section of the first day (Von Ehr (moderating), Schafmeister, Randall, Drexler, Firman) covered major pathway branches presented in the Roadmap, with all the points caught by Chris Phoenix’s QWERTY mastery (so I’ll spare the discussion, as all points were covered).

I will point out a few important take-homes (to me, anyway):

On Negative Results

Firman: “Negative results are a caustic subject… while fusing proteins, sometimes we get two proteins that change each other’s properties. And that’s a negative result, and doesn’t get published. It shouldn’t be lost.” Given the survey nature of the types of quantum chemical calculations being performed to model tooltip designs that might be used for the purposes of mechanosynthesis (molecular manufacturing or otherwise), Drexler, Freitas, Merkle, and myself spend considerable time diagnosing failure modes and possibly unusable molecular designs, making what might otherwise be “negative results” important additions to our respective design and analysis protocols. Wired readers will note that Thomas Goetz covered this topic (“Dark Data”) and some web efforts to make this type of data available in Issue 15.10.


I loved this part. Drexler mentioned how his original notion of a “replicator” as proposed in Engines of Creation is obsolete for pragmatic/logistical reasons, long a point of great controversy over concerns and feasibility. The next comment? Schafmeister, who, in his research talk, had proposed something that performs a form of replication (yes, that’s the experimental chemist making the bold statement). Driven externally, but nonetheless something someone could imagine eventually automating. Christian also performed a heroic feat in his talk by presenting his own (admittedly, by him) “science fiction” pathway for applying his own lab research to a far more technically demanding end, something far down the road as part of his larger research vision.

Roadmap 2.0?

Randall, on the use of the Roadmap: “The value of the Roadmap will be judged by the number of people who read it and try to use it. Value will increase exponentially if we come back and update it.” The nature of nanoscience research is that six months can mean a revolution. I (and a few others at the very first Working Group meeting) had been familiar with structural DNA nanotechnology, mostly from having seen Ned Seeman present something new at every research talk (that is also a feat in the sciences, where a laboratory is producing quick enough to always have results to hand off to the professor in time for the next conference). The Rothemund DNA Origami paper was a turning point to many and made a profound statement on the potential of DNA nanotech. I was amazed. Drexler’s discussions on the possibilities have been and continue to be contagious. William Shih mentioned that his research base changed fundamentally because of DNA Origami, and seeing the complexity of the designs AND the elegance of the experimental studies out of his group at the Roadmap Conference only cemented in my mind just how fast a new idea can be extended into other applications. It would not surprise me if several major advances before the first revision of the Roadmap required major overhauls of large technical sections. At the very least, I hope that scientific progress requires it.

Backseat Drivers Holding The Maps, Spending The Gas Money, And Picking The Music – Applications Panel

The last section of the second day (Chin (moderating), Hall, Maniar, Theis, O’Neill) covered applications, with short-term and very long-term visions represented on the panel (again, all caught by Chris P).

Hall: for those that don’t know, Josh was the wildcard of the applications panel, both for his far more distant contemplations on technology than otherwise represented at the conference and for his exhaustive historical perspective (as in to say he can synthesize quite a bit of tech history and remind us just how little we actually know given the current state of technology and how we perceive it. O’Neill mentioned this same as well, see below). Far and away the most enlightening and entertaining after dinner raconteur I know. As a computer scientist who remembers wheeling around hard drives in his graduate days, Josh knows well the technological revolutions within the semiconductor industry and just how difficult it can be for even industry insiders to gauge the path ahead and its consequences on researchers and consumers.

The Many Moods Of 6 Sigma

Maniar (of Motorola): The employees of the consumer electronics industry singly keep Starbucks running. The majority of Papu’s comments revealed the urgency with which consumer electronics industries attempt the turnaround of research into product. The speed at which the iPhone clones entered the market is a most recent shining example of just how long a company or device can capitalize on novelty before market forces take over.

Papu made another interesting point that I’d not thought of before. While research labs can push the absolute limits of nanotechnology in pursuit of new materials or devices, manufacturers can only make the products that their facilities, or their outsourcing partner facilities, can make with the equipment they have available. The research lab antenna might represent a 5-year leap in the technology, but it cannot make it into today’s phone if the fab facility can’t churn it out in its modern 6 Sigma manifestation. Some of us old Mac users calmed our nerves (and fanned the flames of our credit cards) by reminding ourselves that the extra cost we decided we were paying was because much of the development and fabrication was kept “in-house.” Nanoscience isn’t just about materials, but also new equipment for synthesis and characterization, and the equipment for that is expensive in its first few generations. While perhaps inappropriate to refer to “consumer grade” products as the “dumbed down” version of “research grade” technologies, investors and conspiracy theorists alike can take comfort in knowing that there really is “above-level” technology in laboratories just hoping the company lasts long enough to provide a product in the next cycle.

The CTOs Must Be Crazy

O’Neill: “To some of my friends, graphite epoxy is just black aluminum.” This comment was in regards to how a previous engineering and technician generation sees advances in specific areas relative to their own mindset and not as part of continuing advancements in their fields. It’s safe to say that we all love progress, but many fear change. The progress in science parallels that in technology, and the ability to keep up with the state-of-the-art, much less put it into practice as Papu described, is by no means a trivial matter. Just as medical doctors require recertification, scientists must either keep up with technology or simply see their efforts slow relative to every subsequent generation. Part of the benefit of interdisciplinary research is that the expertise in a separate field is provided automatically upon collaboration. Given the time to understand the physics and the cost of equipment nowadays, most researchers are all too happy to pass off major steps in development to someone else.

Closing Thoughts

Non-researchers know the feeling. We’ve all fumbled with a new technology at one point or another, be it a new cell phone or a new (improved?) operating system, deciding to either “learn only the basics” or throw our hands up in disgust. Imagine having your entire profession changed from the ground up or, even worse, having your profession disappear because of technology (I’ve several family members that used to typeset and run printing companies that all managed to retire “just in time”). All of the research happening in nanoscience serves a disruptive role (which always sounded like a bad word to me in this context but isn’t) in virtually all areas of technology and our economy (wait’ll it’s off the ground. You’ll see). Entire industries, too (ending with humorous digressions). Can you imagine the first catalytic system that effortlessly turns water into hydrogen and oxygen gas? If filling the tank of your jimmied VW ever means turning on your kitchen spigot, will your neighborhood gas station survive selling peanut M+M’s and Snapple at ridiculous prices? When there’s an automated 10-step process to turn E. Coli into coffee (the water and caffeine are the easy ones, the coffee flavor’s going to be a bit of work, but if the Coffea Arabica plant can do it from decomposed organic matter in topsoil, you can be damn sure we can eventually do it from bacteria lysate), what good is a “10% post-consumer recycled product” sticker going to do your local Barista?


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