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What are the Potential Benefits of MNT (Molecular Nanotechnology)?

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  • Written By: R. Kayne
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  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2016
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Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) is a breakthrough science that combines principles of chemistry, biology and physics to propose microscopic devices on the nano-scale that would mechanochemically manipulate individual atoms and molecules for the purpose of constructing materials, eradicating disease, and restoring the environment; thus making the potential benefits of MNT wide-ranging and revolutionary.

MNT is based on the knowledge that basic biochemical and biophysical processes at work at the molecular level mimic industrial assembly machinery on a microscopic scale. This is perhaps most easily seen in the example of DNA which is a molecular chain of instructions for building a macroscopic structure from the bottom up. The "tools" that do the actual building are natural biochemical processes. By harnessing those processes in the form of direct manipulation at the atomic level and augmenting them with computerized biomechanical control, a new era of possibility opens.

To name just a few potential benefits of MNT:

ABUNDANT CLEAN ENERGY - MNT's benefits include the ability to make solar power feasible through manufacturing 'indestructible' solar cells that could be painted on roads and rooftops, easily exceeding the nation's power requirements. MNT would also allow the production of fuels without pollution, ending the energy crisis and making energy affordable.

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ERADICATING DISEASE AND EXTENDING LIFE - Nanomedicine promises an age of unprecedented power to remain healthy throughout life by virtue of in vivo microscopic nanorobots that could repair the body of essentially all maladies at the cellular level. AIDS, cancer and even genetic diseases would become a thing of the past, as could wrinkles, arthritis, poor vision, and other age-related disease. People could be expected to live far longer lives with a higher a quality of life.

HEALING THE ENVIRONMENT - The potential benefits of MNT to the environment are as staggering as its potential benefit to medicine. Scientists predict swarms of microscopic nanorobots sweeping the oceans, disassembling pollutants to protect and preserve the marine environment; others scrubbing the air of the billions of tons of carbon dioxide dumped into it annually, and still others restoring forests and reintroducing extinct species, resulting from shrinking habitats and pollution. Damage done by the industrial revolution could be reversed while MNT technology could support a much larger population with potentially far less environmental impact.

SMART MATERIALS AND GREEN MANUFACTURING - Benefits of MNT include the ability to manufacture products of all kinds inexpensively from the atom up with a programmable, desktop "nanofactories." Virtually anything allowed by the laws of nature could be manufactured without labor or polluting factories, (somewhat akin to Star Trek's replicator). Programmable software would guide the building process, including the ability for the nanofactory to replicate itself. An entrepreneur could design, manufacture and produce a product for sale all in a day's work. Sprawling industrial plants would become obsolete, freeing up land, cutting pollution, and saving a large percentage of water that goes towards industrial use.

Benefits of MNT would also include new and exotic "smart materials" with the ability to encode assembly or repair instructions in the material itself. Imagine products that grow themselves with self-restoring directions in their DNA. Furniture that assembles itself and 'heals' scratches or nicks. Engines that repair themselves and clothes that adjust to weather.

For a suggestive look at possible high-tech applications of the benefits of MNT, K. Eric Drexler, "father of MNT" and author of Engines of Creation (1986) and Nanosystems (1992), offers the intriguing suggestion of a rocket engine that not only repairs itself but changes shape like muscle tissue as different requirements of thrust, force, and aerodynamics come into play.

Raw chemicals for nanofactories would be obtained through disassemblers using natural tools like enzymes, ions and free radicals to break down matter (e.g. recycled products, by-products of the manufacturing process, etc.) into basic elements, making nanotechnology extremely clean and cost-efficient. Rather than digging landfills, refuse might be recycled into building materials for homeless. Savings to manufacturers and benefit to the public and environment would be cumulous and exponential.

HELPING THIRD WORLD NATIONS - Because benefits of MNT include the ability to produce products from a programmable machine the size of a carry-on, an impoverished village lacking the money to invest in infrastructure could, with a single nanofactory, make filters for contaminated water supplies, materials for shelter, greenhouses, and sewage management. MNT could drastically improve the quality of life, curtail disease, boost agriculture, and make potable water available to all. Add nanomedicine to this scenario, and we see the ability to change not just industrial nations with MNT, but the entire world.

COMPUTER MINIATURIZATION AND AI - The value in MNT manufacturing is that exact precision is achieved, atom-by-atom. For computers this translates to the next phase of miniaturization as impurities in materials can be eliminated and exacting structures can be assembled. Extremely small and powerful computers will be cheap and abundant, available to even the poorest people (likely with optional vocal interfaces). Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) would provide superhuman capabilities.

SPACE COLONIZATION - Another proposed benefit of MNT is that the weightless payload of nanotechnology makes it very cheap to send into space. Advance MNT devices could quickly prepare planets for human occupation by building structures, changing the composition of the atmosphere or performing other critical tasks; while nanomedicine could customize the human body for space travel and perhaps even for tolerating other atmospheres.

Just as some physicists believe superstrings to be the elusive answer to Einstein's long-sought after "theory of everything," MNT could be seen as a unifying technology that not only has the ability to heal humans and the planet, but to propel us into a new age of clean industry and unlimited possibility, drastically changing, prolonging, and improving life as we know it in unimaginable ways, all within the next 10 to 30 years.

However, the potential dangers of MNT are as persuasive as its benefits. Though generations of the last 100 years have doggedly and successfully assimilated a dizzying array of vastly improved technologies, MNT is exponentially different. It will be far more powerful, portable, cheap, and if nanofactories are widely accessible, available. Be that as it may, science is destined to march towards that which it now knows is possible and we, some willingly, some perhaps not, stand destined to march with it.

For more on the potential benefits and dangers of MNT, the Center For Responsible Nanotechnology serves as a public information center with continual updates and news.

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