Monday, October 21, 2013

A Little More on Manufacturing and Nanobots

Commenter SinEater dropped by from Og's place to leave some of his arguments here.  As I'm wont to do on occasion, let me post the comment and my responses.
When you can accumulate static electricity from water pipes and kinetic energy from blades of grass moving and thermal energy from the difference in temperature between a swimming pool and the hot concrete around it energy is everywhere.
We are making massive improvements in capacitors and batteries.
Let's take some current military projects as examples. There are wearable garments and boots that are designed to generate electricity from the movement of a given soldier to charge suit electronics and recharge batteries.
Take that and apply it to the idea that you can program nannites to form electrical conductors along tree branches and then form whatever type of electrical generator you would like at the base of the stem of each leaf on each tree in a forest. When the wind blows you could generate a moderate amount of electricity from each tree. You could accumulate all of the electricity from a tree in a capacitor at the base. Then you could have the nannites form conductors from each capacitor to a larger capacitor near where the electrical energy is to be used. As far as powering each individual nannite, you could use inductive charging with really small and really efficient batteries on each nannite and for every 20 nannites have a handful that collect static electricity or solar energy or thermal energy based on the environment and time of day and season. The energy collectors would have inductive chargers that would be used to charge the worker bee nannites.

And I truly believe that the people who worked in industries supporting the first computers would never have dreamed that you could pick one up and carry it in a pocket and run it for eight or more hours off of a battery the size of a deck of cards.
And I truly believe that the people who worked in industries supporting the space industries in the fifties and sixties would never have believed that commercial space launches would become viable without an entire nation's resources to back the process.
And I truly believe that the people watching the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk would never have envisioned a Boeing 787 or an SR-71 Blackbird.
Let me start by saying that whenever someone tells today's version of the Wright Brothers "it'll never fly", it's easy to find stupid things to say about them.  I get that.  There's also a saying by Arthur C. Clarke, "If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong."  I may be hitting elderly but I'm certainly not distinguished, and I'm reluctant to say it's impossible.  It just isn't going to happen in our lifetimes and probably not in this century.

The comment that the people at Kitty Hawk would never have envisioned the 787 is particularly apt because there was about 100 years between them.  The kind of things you're imagining seem to be 100 years away from the first tentative steps we're making now.  The robots you posted about on Og's page are light years from where we need to be.  "Scientists want to build mechanical nanobots on the bacteria model."?  Bacteria are several orders of magnitude bigger than what you want.  Assuming we just get from these crude first robots to universal assemblers reminds me of the famous Sidney Harris cartoon where a scientist is doing a derivation of equations on a blackboard, stops, adds, "then a miracle occurs", and resumes.  There are too many steps missing in there. 

I see tons of questions there that can't just be waved off in my mind.  First off, we're not making massive improvements in batteries.  The uniforms that harvest mechanical energy as electrical are trivial compared to what's needed here.  Energy harvesting is big business and going to get bigger as an entirely macroscopic phenomenon.  There is no Moore's Law of batteries, improving capacity is rough work with slow progress.  As a species, we know next to nothing about how to make machines that work on that scale, and the evidence is that simply scaling them doesn't work very well.  How do you program something so small it can recognize and move individual atoms?  How much memory can it have?  It can't have much, since even quantum devices will be the same scale as what you're working on.  How big does the manipulator have to be to do everything it has to do: be powered, have memory, have manipulators of some kind, mobility of some kind.  In the whimsical cartoon I posted, the manipulator was microscopic and the things it was manipulating appeared to be pollen grains.  Both of them many orders of magnitude bigger than what we're talking about. 


I'm not even addressing any of the things Og addressed, about how when we make an alloy, it's not just the atoms you use but how you treat the result, whether by cold working or heat stressing.  There are so many problems to solve to get where you want.  Will these problems be solved?  Some for sure.  Maybe all of them, but maybe not.  Undoubtedly, new problems will show up and some of them will be even more intractable.  I seriously doubt we'll see universal assemblers in either of our lifetimes, unless you figure to live past 2100. 


  1. SG,

    I can't argue one bit with your assessment. Dreams are good and help to set goals, but we live in the world around us today, not a hundred years from now.

    Piggy backing the original idea a bit, though, we have seen the power of networked devices in all sorts of modern systems, and I can't help but think that some combinations of already existing technology will eventually save the day. Forget pie in the sky concepts (nano anything), or even monolithic devices (hydro dams, for instance), and stick with smallish, simple technology stitched together, much like the networked concept you responded to. I thought of a "back of the envelope" system to harness the energy of waves on the ocean a few years ago and forgive me for spewing, but this seems relevant.

    Think of a buoy, anchored by a large mass to the bottom of the water body. The buoy bobs, the anchor is stationary, with relative motion between. Whether the mode of collection is pneumatic, hydraulic, or static electricity, the point being that in this one little buoy, that relative motion between the anchor and the buoy (assuming that is physically large enough that it's buoyency can overcome the resistance created by the harnessing device) can be collected. My minds eye visualizes pistons, or some other type of positive displacement device (I R mochanic type) that either fills a pressure vessel or an accumulator (maybe compresses a spring, or a bladder...). Hell, it could be the indusrtial equivalent of surgical tubing, stretching/constricting and forcing a flow of fluid inside in one direction, only to relax and expand, with check valves to allow uncompressed fluid back in.

    Now, the energy that can be harnessed in just one of these devices is fine and dandy if you want to run some ocean research sensors on the buoy, but what if we had a dozen of these buoys networked together, like a gill net. Have them feed back into one central, floating platform. The platform then converts the energy collected by whatever type of system we are using, and spits out electricity (or some other in) transferrable form. The nature of the multiple feeds would probably even help to modulate the stream to the central platform. An example: Pneumatic drives spin a small generator, etc. Even consider the potential to store the energy, like current hydro dams do now during non peak hours.

    Now a dozen buoys and a collection platform are a network. How about a network of networks, as an even larger gill net with a central transfer station back to shore.

    By this point you either get what I am saying, or this concept is every bit as pie in the sky as your earlier dreamer's.

    All I am saying is that, in my opinion, simple but robustly built devices of the "off the shelf variety" have quite a bit of untapped potential when combined with the power of networked systems.

    Now, I fully admit that the transition from envelope to production is a bit less simple than I'm suggesting, but if not this idea, then it'll be the next, or the next...

    Of course, Unca Sugar could just advance me a couple of gazillion bucks and a legion of interns and academics, and I'm damn sure to at least beat the "high water mark" in performance of the green guys down the block.

    Me, I'd rather pull together a handful of buddies from different diciplines, convince them to help out for a cut, and practice some good old fashoned, free market enterepreneur hustle.

    You want in?


    1. Oh, I get what you're saying. There are some wave power systems around, but it's still pretty early in the adoption cycle. There are also schemes to extract power from tides and permanent currents like the Gulf Stream. Strangely, neither wave power or current (tide) power seems to have been adopted as darlings of the green energy community. I really don't know why, but I can imagine that if we ever started extracting large percentages of the energy of the tides, or waves, there would be environmental impacts. But that also goes for the wind power farms, and nobody seems to think about that. Heck, they allow windmills to kill endangered birds.

      The idea of implementing lots of small sources in networks is solid, too.

      I'm a big believer in localizing power and other resources. Most of the people who read the Resilient Communities blog (linked over in the right column) are concerned that our complete dependence on a very long supply chain for everything is a weak spot in the modern world.

      Good luck with your new company! ;-)

  2. What if the scientist who is most likely to have made the breakthrough that makes nanotech possible (think the Steve Jobs of nano) was a climate science denier and has been hounded out of academia to pursue a career running a B&B in upstate New York?

  3. More discussion at my place. Come join the fun!