From Vision to Reality: The Journey to Create Molecular Assemblers

Some 31 years ago, all the way back in 1986, the futurist Eric K. Drexler published a new book – Engines of Creation, in which he wrote about his vision of molecular assemblers. Those machines – each too small to be seen by the naked eye – were supposed to take atoms and put them together in a myriad of shapes and combinations. While others, like Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, discusssed this idea before, Drexler was the first to fully consider its implications, and has ignited the imagination – and motivation – of millions around the world.

Why are such molecular assemblers so important? Because everything is made of atoms: the earth, our food, our medications and even you and me. That means that these molecular assemblers can be the ultimate recycling machines.

According to Drexler’s vision, the molecular assemblers of the future would be able to –

  • Take apart feces and urine, and reconstruct them into steaming-hot steaks;
  • Capture carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere, and use the atoms to create usable plastic or even oil;
  • Create sheets of perfect diamond (one of the simplest structures in nature – ‘just’ carbon atoms attached to each other;
  • Create all forms of medication, at everyone’s house.

And as Drexler himself beautifully put it –

“COAL AND DIAMONDS, sand and computer chips, cancer and healthy tissue: throughout history, variations in the arrangement of atoms have distinguished the cheap from the cherished, the diseased from the healthy. Arranged one way, atoms make up soil, air, and water; arranged another, they make up ripe strawberries. Arranged one way, they make up homes and fresh air; arranged another they make up ash and smoke.”

The possibilities and potential are practically endless. Only thing is – thirty one years after Drexler’s burst of genius, molecular assemblers are still a vision which we are striving to fulfill.

The upside is that such assemblers are more than just a figment of the imagination. At some point in the future, we will be able to create them.

How do I know that? Because they already exist.

 

The Living Assemblers

Consider the cells in your body. Each of them is a wondrous and highly complex machine with one sole purpose: to break down certain molecules into simpler molecules and atoms, and to reconstruct those basic building blocks into more complex molecules that your body can use. These cells, in a very real sense, are molecular assemblers.

And not only that, but some cells can even create incredibly sophisticated molecular structures. Consider, for example, the Surirella spiralis – a unicellular (one-cell) organism, that secretes silica in a highly specific and accurate fashion, and thus creates a unique armor around itself. The size of this ‘spaceship’ that you see in the picture below is around 70 micro-meters, which is about the diameter of a single human hair.

Picture from Wikipedia, by Nicola Angeli/MUSE

How do cells know to create these wondrous structures, or to place molecules so precisely around themselves? They are programmed to do so, and the program is in their DNA – their genetic code.

Some biochemists are trying to genetically engineer cells to instruct them what to do. But others are trying a different approach, which has gained substantial attention these last two years, especially since three of the leaders in the field have won the 2016 Nobel prize in chemistry for creating actual molecular machines.

 

The Molecular Machines

Three researchers won the 2016 Nobel prize in chemistry: Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa. Put simply, those scientists all focused on creating molecular machines: machines the size of molecules, that contain several parts that move in relation to each other.

Sauvage created a molecular machine, one part of which could revolve around the other when fed with energy.

Stoddart created a ‘molecular lift’, that could raise itself above a surface, and later an developed a molecular ‘artificial muscle’ that could even bend a (very) thin gold sheet.

Picture: molecular lift. From The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016, Popular Science Background

Finally, Feringa built molecular motors, that actually powered a molecular nano-car. The wheels of the car really did revolve, and the entire construct could race across a gold surface, which is about a cool a thing as could be.

Molecular car. Credit: University of Gronigen.

Why are all these developments important? Make no mistake: they’re not going to impact our lives in the next decare or so, but as the Nobel committee itself declared

“In terms of development, the molecular motor is at about the same stage as the electric motor was in the 1830s, when researchers proudly displayed various spinning cranks and wheels in their laboratories without having any idea that they would lead to electric trains, washing machines, fans and food processors.”

In the future – maybe twenty years away from us, but probably more – the evolved versions of these molecular motors will be everywhere. And yes, they’ll be part of the molecular assemblers whose existence Drexler forecast thirty one years ago. We are nowhere near the end of the journey into molecular engineering.

In fact, a new invention from 2017 shows that we’ve already created a working molecular assembler – even though it’s a pretty limited one. A group of biochemists led by Simone Pisano, created a molecular ‘robot’ (as they described it themselves), that could selectively pick up very specific molecules, attach them to certain sites on other molecules, and repeat the action again and again. This is a very small step towards molecular assemblers, but it is a step nonetheless, in an area in which even the tiniest developments require years of painstaking research.

Credit: Nature.

 

Conclusion: the Molecular Assembelers Are Coming

When we look at the developments in the field, and at the great achievements created by the blind watchmaker – semi-random evolutionary processes – it seems practically a certainty that at some point in the future, we will have molecular assemblers. Many science fiction authors write about that future with great confidence that it will arrive – maybe twenty or thirty years into the future, maybe a hundred or more. But arrive it will, and when it does, the human race will never lack for resources again. Quite literally, we will be able to transmute air to edible meat, and our waste into breathable air, drinkable water and edible food. It will be a period of abundance unlike any in human history before.

And all that began with the detailed vision of one futurist – Eric K. Drexler – thirty one years ago.

 


 

If you like reading about future technologies and their impact on society, you can find more posts and answers like this one in my Quora content (where this answer also appeared originally).

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