The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Vindicates Radical Visions of Molecular Nanotechnology

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016 was awarded jointly to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.” The award vindicates the dreams of nanotechnology enthusiasts, and points the way to the molecular nanotechnology proposed by Drexler in the eighties.

“2016’s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken molecular systems out of equilibrium’s stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled,” notes the Nobel announcement. “In terms of development, the molecular motor is at the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when scientists displayed various spinning cranks and wheels, unaware that they would lead to washing machines, fans and food processors.”

They have developed molecules with controllable movements.

The enthusiasm for nanotechnology started with K. Eric Drexler’s cult book “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986).” While Engines of Creation was mainly focused on visionary dreams of unlimited power and abundance enabled by nanotechnology, Drexler’s last book, “Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization (2013),” is more focused on additive manufacturing at the nanoscale, or Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM) – building precisely manufactured goods from the bottom up, one atom or molecule at the time, a concept essentially equivalent to 3D nano-printing.

“In Engines of Creation, I pictured molecular manufacturing using ‘replicating assemblers’ to build things, including more machines like themselves,” noted Drexler in a twentieth anniversary edition of the book (2006). The concept of replicating assemblers stimulated breathtaking visions of far future technologies, such as the “utility fog,” and fears of self-replicating nanobots that would destroy the biosphere (the infamous “grey goo” scenario).

Replicating assemblers tend to be dismissed as unfeasible hype by most of the science establishment. But even outspoken Drexler critic Richard Jones, the author of “Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life,” acknowledges that biology proves the feasibility of replicating molecular nanotechnology. In fact, replicating assemblers must be feasible in-principle, because our very cells are assemblers.

“Further study showed that [replicating assemblers] would be needlessly complex and inefficient,” added Drexler. “In a detailed, technical book [“Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation,” 1992], I described and analyzed desktop-scale molecular manufacturing systems that would be far simpler and more efficient.” So he did, but this and similar statements have been interpreted as defensive backpedaling.

From Drexler’s visions and today’s first wave of practical achievements in APM and molecular machines, molecular nanotechnology will continue to develop, and someday achieve replicating assemblers as well.

A Major Step Toward Drexler’s Vision

K. Eric Drexler
K. Eric Drexler

It’s unfortunate that most of the press articles about the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry ignore or downplay Drexler’s seminal work on nanotechnology. An exception is George Dvorsky’s Gizmodo article. Dvorsky notes that “molecular nanotechnology is still in its infancy, but by awarding the Nobel Prize to these three scientists, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is acknowledging the technology’s huge potential.”

With the 2016 Nobel Awards, it’s clear that nanotechnology has finally arrived.

The Nobel press release notes that molecular machines will most likely be used in the development of things such as new materials, sensors and energy storage systems. But the possibility to control the movement of molecular machines, pioneered by the new Nobel laureates, opens the door to visionary applications – tomorrow’s “washing machines, fans and food processors” – such as medical molecular nanorobots that roam our bodies and hack our cells to fix all problems. According to Nicholas Negroponte, who created the prestigious MIT Media Lab, nanobots will hack our brains as well.

The concept of medical nanorobots is illustrated in the infographics below, due to media and nanotechnology expert Gina “Nanogirl” Miller.

Molecular nanorobots

Miller, who in 1999 launched the popular nanotechnology newsletter “Nanogirl News” with over four thousand subscribers, has written articles and provided interviews on the subject of nanotechnology and created digital artwork, videos and animations to illustrate future applications. Her work has been featured in various media including History Channel, Wired, PC Magazine, Fast Company, and various books such as “Nanofuture” by J. Storrs Hall, the inventor of the “utility fog” concept.

Miller has collaborated with Drexler and other nanotechnology pioneers such as Robert A. Freitas Jr., author of “Nanomedicine,” and is a frequent collaborator of the Foresight Institute created by Drexler.

“The 2016 Nobel Chemistry Prize is validation that mainstream science has accepted the proposition that it is possible to design and fabricate molecular machines capable of using energy to control motion,” says Miller.

This is a major step toward the Feynman-Drexler vision of systems of molecular machines manufacturing large, complex objects to atomic precision.

One of the new Nobel laureates, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, won the Feynman Prize awarded by Drexler’s Foresight Institute in 2007. Miller shared memories of the event and thoughts:

The 2007 Foresight technical conference was held October 9-10 in Arlington, Virginia. It was held in conjunction with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) to launch the Productive Nanosystems Roadmap. The original web site for the Conference was hosted by SME and no longer exists, although a pre-conference brochure describing the Conference in some detail can be downloaded from Foresight.

This was also the last Foresight Conference at which Eric Drexler appeared. Drexler was Chief Technical Consultant to the Productive Nanosystems Roadmap, and the Roadmap was the last Foresight project that drew Drexler’s participation. The Roadmap is available on Drexler’s website and also on the Foresight Institute web site.

The Roadmap was sponsored by grants from the Waitt Family Foundation and other partners to the Foresight Institute, and was prepared by Foresight and Battelle, which manages US National Laboratories, including Pacific Northwest, Oak Ridge, and Brookhaven, all of which hosted Roadmap workshops. The goal was to chart a path from current (2005-2007) nanotechnology to the vision of building large, complex objects molecule-by- molecule. It was the first attempt to systematically map out research and development paths through several disciplines leading to nanosystems that could produce other nanosystems, and eventually to general purpose, high-throughput, atomically precise manufacturing.

A number of researchers representing different disciplines and different research stages from basic nanoscience and fundamental research to technology development for near-term applications presented recent results and research plans at the conference.

A highlight of the Conference was the Feynman lunch, at which the 2007 Foresight Institute Feynman Prizes were announced. The winner in the Experiment category was Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, at that time at UCLA and since moved to Northwestern University, announced by Foresight: “who has pioneered the synthesis and assembly of unique active molecular machines for manufacturing into practical nanoscale devices. His many accomplishments in synthetic chemistry have produced functional molecular machines, in particular a ‘molecular muscle’ for the purposes of amplifying and harnessing molecular mechanical motions, that may ultimately lead to the construction of atomically-precise products through the use of molecular machine systems.”

The winner in the Theory category was David A. Leigh of the University of Edinburgh (since moved to the University of Manchester) for “the design and synthesis of artificial molecular motors and machines from first principles… focusing on the construction of molecular machine systems that function in the realm of Brownian motion.” When presented with his award, Sir Fraser commented that these awards represented a unique, scientific “father and son” celebration since Prof. Leigh had obtained his PhD in 1987 under Prof. Stoddart’s supervision at the University of Sheffield.

Sir J. Fraser Stoddart sharing the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions to the design and production of molecular machines is also an event to be celebrated. AFAIK this is the first instance of a Foresight Feynman Prize winner going on to win a Nobel.

Written in collaboration with Gina “Nanogirl” Miller.

Images from Gina “Nanogirl” Miller, Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.

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