Global Ecological Concerns in the Next Century

We face a new age of nanotechnology.  Many students are entering the fields of
nanotechnology and biology.  Many scientists are now looking on these two fields as being
very similar because they are both engaged in nanoscopic self-assembling systems.  Nanotech
tends to be involved in inorganic systems and biology tends to be involved in organic
systems.  But nanotechnologists are discovering that the use of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and
nitrogen by organic systems makes a lot of sense for inorganic nanotech fabrication as well.
In time, organic and inorganic systems are likely to blend together. One trend is to use small
desktop factories to manufacture products out of readily available materials.  Since the most
readily available source of molecules is the atmosphere, it is very efficient to manufacture
products from carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen.

The use of desktop systems to manufacture organic and inorganic products out of these four
atmospheric elements is only at the experimental stages now.  Technology, as we all know,
takes a concept such as making transistors on a chip and makes the idea grow exponentially.  
In the case of transistors on a chip, the growth rate has followed Moore’s law and
approximately doubled every 18 months.  If you have shopped for hard disc drives lately, you
have noticed that the capacity has increased dramatically.  The number of bytes of storage that
you can purchase for one dollar has doubled every 10.25 months.  This amounts to a growth of
125% per year since 1990.

A second question came up about computer chips as they were put into personal computers
and manufactured in quantity.  As of the middle of 2003, Dell Computer alone shipped more
than 140,000 computers per day.  This number of computers means that each one of them will
be plugged in and consume electrical power.  Since that is quite a significant quantity of
power used, computers have now been designed to go into power saving modes in order to
consume less power.

In the case of desktop manufacturing, the first question is how fast it might grow in
capabilities.  Will it grow at the rate of Moore’s law, which is 59% per year, or at the rate of hard
disc memory, which is 125% per year or at the rate that DNA testing is dropping in cost, which
is 384% per year?

Consider a few specific examples in order to get an idea of how fast this technology might
catch on.  In the inorganic arena, diamonds can be manufactured with such desktop units.  A
two karat uncut diamond now costs $100 to manufacture.  Consider that carbon nanotubes
are 100 times stronger than steel and will eventually be easily created using desktop
manufacturing units.  On the organic side of things, consider that spider silk is both
biodegradable and can be used like Kevlar to stop bullets in a bulletproof jacket.  Currently
spider silk is manufactured by a Canadian biotech firm, which has used gene splicing to
create goats that deliver spider silk material in their milk. The result, says Quebec-based
Nexia Biotechnologies, is a synthetic version of spider silk that’s biodegradable but also strong
enough to stop bullets.  It is anticipated that such materials will be used to create sutures that
dissolve rather than needing to be removed by the surgeon.  Eventually spider silk will be
manufactured with the desktop manufacturing systems that we are discussing here.

Whether it is diamonds, carbon nanotubes, or spider silk, a main constituent of these
products will be carbon extracted from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The second and more important question is how much atmosphere will be consumed by
desktop manufacturing.  We have plenty of water in the atmosphere and hence the
consumption of hydrogen and oxygen is not of concern.  Air consists of 78% nitrogen so that
isn’t a concern either.  The real concern that will develop in the next decades is the huge
quantity of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide that will be extracted by desktop
manufacturing units. Carbon dioxide is only 0.03% of the atmosphere.  The reason for such a
low concentration of carbon dioxide is that the earth’s biomass is so dominated by the
members of the plant kingdom.  Since it is the plant kingdom which consumes carbon dioxide
from the atmosphere, it has become a trace element in the atmosphere over the ages.  

It is anticipated that the quantity of carbon dioxide extracted by each machine will grow
exponentially as the technology improves and that the number of machines sold will grow
exponentially in a manner similar to the growth of personal computers.  This means that the
consumption of carbon dioxide will grow at a doubly exponential rate.  In addition, the
manufacture of desktop manufacturing system components are likely to be accomplished
using desktop manufacturing systems.  This could lead to a triple exponential rate of growth.

Desktop systems are a type of life—inorganic systems which can self-replicate.

Picture it this way.  If you want a new flat screen television, you will only have to ask your
desktop manufacturing machine to make one for you.  If your desktop manufacturing system
is two years old and not sufficiently sophisticated to manufacture the latest type of television
screen, you can ask your desktop manufacturing system to make another more up to date
manufacturing system that will be more capable.  The old manufacturing system can be used
to manufacture something relatively simple such as unblemished fruit for your consumption.  
The design for the new system is purchased via the Internet like we purchase software over the
Internet today.

Another way of looking at desktop manufacturing systems is that they are like an apple tree in
that they produce fruit for human consumption and they are able to reproduce themselves by
making the parts that can be easily assembled by them into another desktop manufacturing
system.  The function of DNA is as an information storage device.  The genes for making the
apples and the apple trees are in the form of information stored in DNA.  The information for
making an updated desktop manufacturing system is stored as bytes in computer memory.

Picture what would happen if every one of the 140,000 computers shipped by Dell each day
was capable of making another computer like itself every week.  Now picture that every such
computer made could also reproduce itself.

Still, the use of desktop manufacturing systems is calculated to have very little impact until
after the year 2035.  Between 2035 and 2100, however, this technology may have a disastrous
effect on the ecology unless something can be done.  The billions of tons of carbon dioxide
extracted from the atmosphere during that period of time could deprive plants of their source
of carbon and that could have calamitous effects on the ecology.  In addition, carbon dioxide
has the property of helping to keep the earth warm through the “greenhouse effect.”  As the
content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere diminishes, global cooling could become a
realistic concern and the Earth might enter another ice age.

Addressing New Ecological Concerns