Saturday, August 26, 2006

Energy: So you want to replace oil?

This is a very very long rant about energy, and my attempt to provide my perspective on the issue. Energy really is of central importance to our society, and entrusting our energy futures to pie-in-the-sky dreams, conspiracy theories, witchhunts and political pandering is not in our best interests. Getting a good perspective on this issue is a task requiring some analysis of the actual degree of scale that we're talking about, thermodynamics, and the actual efficacy of different methods of power production. If the public became better informed (I mean really informed, not just subscribing to the latest "alternative" energy fad), it would then force politicians to stop playing public-perception games and obstructing the development of sound enegy sources.

Energy: What You’re Up Against When You Talk About Getting Rid of Oil
So, you want to free America from its “oil dependence”? You think conservation, or fuel efficiency is the key to becoming self sufficient? After all, we’re “dependent on energy”, and we really shouldn’t consume so much, right? Idealized, primitive (thouroughly oppressed) peasants in their rice paddies don’t consume anywhere near the energy that we do. But then again, primitive peasants don’t produce most of the world’s wealth, or enjoy much of it, do they? The modern industrialized lifestyle exists because we have found ways of getting machines to do our work for us. Machines don’t do work for us when they don’t have an energy source. Per capita wealth is directly proportional to per capita productivity. Per capita productivity is proportional to the amount of machines we have working for us, the extent to which they work for us, hence the amount of per capita power we have available. If we were to suddenly stop consuming energy one day, then that would be it for civilization as we know it: Back to scratching the dirt with a stick hoping to glean enough off of the land using primitive farming techniques to feed yourself (or enslaving your neighbors to do so, which is probably more likely). No fertilizers, backhoes, or even pumped irrigation, and you can forget about transporting produce long distance. A life without energy is a life of medieval grinding poverty (and serfdom to those who still have the use of energy and industry).

So no, civilization should not free itself from its “energy dependence”!! Civilization is dependent on energy exactly as much as the body is dependent on oxygen. Without it, there is no hope of using our resources or doing work to anywhere near the extent that we can do today.

1. Efficiency

So, one canard down, what about “efficiency?”. Surely there are ways we can improve the efficiency of our processes so that we don’t need to consume energy at the rate that we do? There is room for improvement in efficiency to a limited extent. But it also depends on what sort of efficiency you’re after. Do you want efficiency, as in consumes less energy (usually what is meant)? Do you want ease of manufacture? Do you want the product to be efficient to design and maintain? These different sorts of efficiencies are often in conflict. Economic efficiency means providing you the product at the least cost and overall effort. Energy efficiency often requires more complicated, difficult to manufacture devices. Furthermore, efficiency is a sharp diminishing return game. It’s impossible to be more than 100% efficient. It’s thermodynamically impossible to be more efficient than the devices Carnot efficiency. For diesel engines, we’re at about 34-40. For large power stations, we’re at 40-60%. (Cengel, Bois, Thermodynamics, 254). As you approach these barriers, the convolution and cost of your device approaches infinity. The ideal efficiency, the ceiling at which you thermodynamically cannot operate above, no matter how convoluted your diesel engine gets, is between 60-70%. (Cengel, 464, a function of the compression ratio btw).

Theoretically, assuming we could pack a device that somehow managed this 60% efficiency in a truck, which could then get this efficiency under real world conditions, we would be able to reduce our oil consumption from 7.3 billion barrels a year to something like 5.8 billion (we use something like 70% of our oil for automotive purposes. We use the rest for heating and electricity production). That could save us some time, as far as total oil supplies go, but it extends our oil-driven lifespan (whatever it turns out to be) by only 25%. That is the most we can expect out of increasing our efficiency. It’s not going to free us from foreign oil. The only thing that will free us from foreign oil dependence is actually developing our domestic oil supplies.

2. Notes on how much oil is left:

The world consumes oil at somewhere around 50 million barrels/day. There are 836 billion barrels estimated in our proven reserves. (Source:
Proven reserves mean conventionally extractable, readily refinable oil (of the right characteristics) that has been discovered and mapped out. It doesn’t mean that that is how much total oil there is. There are unconventional oil deposits (such as shale oil) which require unconventional extraction methods (which are currently being developed by our oil industry). These reserves can be as high as 2 trillion barrels not counting the Venezualan Orinoco heavy oil belt (which may contain an addition 1-4 trillion barrels). So, proven reserves are going to run out in 50 years at present consumption rates, assuming both a continuation of present consumption levels (unlikely – they’re probably going to increase exponentially as they have throughout history) and assuming that no new proven reserves will be discovered (also very unlikely – the ocean coasts are probably lousy with unexplored oil as the recent events in the gulf and Alaska demonstrate). We could have anywhere from 50-200+ years of oil left, depending on the playout of many unforeseeable factors.

Nevertheless, it is going to run out someday. Furthermore, the use of all conventional oil supplies is likely to cause some significant discomfort. Shale oil, and other harder to mine deposits, though present in larger quantities, are also more difficult and expensive to mine. Another note – eventually the process of extracting the oil takes more energy than you would get out of the finished gasoline. Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t an impassible barrier by any means. You just need to use a non-oil energy source to drive the extraction process. (My favorite, for reasons I’ll go into in future posts, is nuclear).

So rather than running dry instantly, the following scenario is likely to play out. Assuming 100% social flexibility (ie. The government will let the oil companies do what needs to be done to get at these deposits, which, given the popular mindset of environmental self-flagellation is far from given), oil companies will attempt to mine ever more difficult deposits of oil. The easiest ones to get at (and hence the cheapest) will obviously go first. After that, harder and harder deposits will be mined. (These more difficult deposits, fortunately exist in larger quantity). Gasoline will continue to get more and more expensive, as harder deposits are mined. Eventually the gradually increasing prices will drive us to a different energy source. We’ll never run out of oil, we’ll just have to stop using it as our primary energy source at some point.

3. We need a SOURCE

We need an energy source. This one central fact of civilization will not go away as long as civilization exists. You have an enormous stake in making sure it continues to exist. We cannot loftily abstain. We cannot make ourselves more and more efficient until we cease to require sustenance. I’m certainly not going to tolerate a sub-industrial lifestyle, no matter what you may prefer, and I’m willing to fight for it, so you can count out placating people like me into passive sacrifice.

An energy source is distinct from an energy transport or storage mechanism. Hydrogen will not power our civilization. It may power our cars, but it is not a source. It is a proposed storage method. Hydrogen doesn’t sit around in pools in the ground like oil does, in a naturally elevated chemical energy state. We have to produce it, and to do so, we have to expend energy. Another example of a transport mechanism, as opposed to a source, is a battery. It is charged with energy generated elsewhere.

We’re making progress on our storage methods all the time. Our batteries are at about 15% the energy density of gasoline by mass. I don’t have the source, but I was reading something the other day about a boron-hydride fuel cell that uses boron hydrides (far easier to work with than LH2 or compressed hydrogen btw) to get 1/5 the energy density of gasoline within the fuel cell unit.

But what is going to drive this process? We’re talking about replacing 7.3 billion barrels of oil/year. That’s 6.1E9 J/barrel ( That’s 1.4E12W of energy. That’s assuming there aren’t any inefficiencies in converting the driving energy into these equivalent fuels. 1400 GW. 1,400,000 MW. 1000 Hoover Dams!!

Energy: Part 2: Energy Sources for Civilization

3a. Solar

Personally, I don’t think solar power will cut it. The primary reason why is that solar power isn’t being proposed politically for the purposes of providing actual electricity. It’s being proposed as a magician’s distraction to seize our attention while nothing is done to actually de-regulate energy production. A sop to placate us. Perhaps a plant or two will be constructed, as pet projects for senators and contract seeking eco-firms.

The second reason why is that solar energy is very very diffuse. It is not “free energy”. It requires refined silicon panels, which are expensive to make. It requires batteries to store this energy during night, transformers to step it all up to usable voltages. Per square meter, there is just not that much of it. I have heard over and over again “If we just pave our roofs with solar panels, we can meet our needs”. Will this cut it? Let’s see. At Earth’s distance from the sun, it receives about 1370 W/m^2 in terms of energy. Only about half of this energy makes it through the atmosphere. And the sun is only in the air half the time. So you’re only getting about 340 W/m^2 on average.

If we assumed 100% efficiency of our panels, our storage process, transmission, and our conversion of that energy into chemical energy, we would only need about 4100 km^2 of collection area to do the job. But assuming 100% efficiency is a good way to be totally divorced from reality.

There are two main types of photovoltaics out there: silicon and gallium arsenide. Gallium arsenide solar cells are about 37% efficient on satellites, and 26% efficiency has been achieved terrestrially. Link However, we can’t make miles and miles of panels out of Gallium Arsenide. We’d have to go with the silicon panels.

Silicon solar panels are about 12% efficient at room temperature (at colder temperatures, the cells are more efficient. However, considering that the cells get their energy from sitting in the hot sun, this is somewhat self-defeating). Link

I don’t have any solid sources, but charging and discharging battery banks is likely to be about 30% efficient. We need the battery banks to store energy for cloudy days, or for periods when the efficiency falls below optimal, or when usage peaks. Since solar power doesn’t output at a nice predictable rate, these are required to smooth out the transition.

If we then, finally, assume a generous 50% for the efficiency of producing and transporting the artificial fuel, we’ll end up needing something like 230000 km^2 (87,000 mi^2) of solar panels. (a square 480 km (300 mi) on a side).

That doesn’t sound too much like free energy to me. Don’t even get me started on the fact that these solar panels have to come from somewhere (refining silicon from sand, ect) and that they have to last sufficiently long to return the amount of energy it takes to produce them in the first place.

Solar might be an option for powering small appliances and lighting, or road-signs. It might even provide remote power for camping. But it’s not going to replace gasoline.

3b. Bio-diesel

This is sort of like the organic version of solar power. Plants are basically solar powered organisms. They store their energy in sugars and other substances that we can refine into various hydrocarbon fuels. They are one step over solar in one regard – we don’t have to expend the same energy refining silicon. Plants are self-constructing.

However, we do have to till the soil, provide irrigation, ect. Furthermore, these plants are going to be in direct competition for our most arable land, which we need to feed the world. At least, if we continue to want to be the bread-basket of the world. We do have plenty of arable land available, however, so let’s assume that the same people who dream of bio-diesel powered cars will also give their parklands, wilderness, and forests over to bio-diesel farmers.

However, you need to gain sufficient energy from the refined fuel to afford harvesting it. Remember, this is supposed to be our primary source, you can’t pass the energy debt off to something else. Also, plants are much much less efficient, from an energy collection perspective than photovoltaics. So the amount of farmland necessary to implement this is likely to be vast. (At this point, I’m running out of time, so my discussions are going to be a little less quantitative).

3c. Windmills

How fast do alternative energy buffs intend to wave their hands?

3d. Tidal Generators (I like this one)

Tidal generators actually have potential for use as a primary source. The tides are predictable, consistent, and, most importantly, they pack a punch. Thousands of tons of water moving back and forth on a day to day basis can be made to move back and forth through our turbines into artificial reseviours, providing significant power. They, like hydroelectric power, require pouring a lot of concrete in some highly inconvenient areas, however. It would require a significant re-arrangement of some coastal property, most of which is densely populated, to make this work.

3e. Enviro-Luddites in Hamster Wheels

Egads! I’ve got it! Race you to the patent office! Promising, very promising, but it would require them adopting a somewhat more substantial diet than tofu and organically produced vegetables. And then it would devolve into another version of bio-diesel.

3f. Coal Power

I’m rather unsentimental about the environment. My main concern about energy is from a human perspective. You’d have to be pretty darn convincing to get me to believe that any old industrial eyesore or the death of the purple-spotted-worm is too much to ask of the environment if it benefits mankind. But even I would be opposed to coal power on environmental grounds. There was a point in time when London was choking on suffocating yellow fog due to their prodigious burning of coal and local weather characteristics. Coal power produces pollution. Real pollution. Particulates, sulfur, smog, all in non-trace quantities - not just the CO2 you get from burning oil.

The recovery of our environment from the industrial revolution began, believe it or not, when we converted from steam engines, wood furnaces, animal power and coal boilers to oil internal-combustion driven processes. Far from being a despoiler of the earth, the IC engine saved us from what was, at the time, the only other alternative.

Furthermore, how fast and recklessly do you want to mine this stuff? Can it be longwalled at the rate it would take to supply 1.4 terrawatts of power? At such a frantic pace, it’s likely that miners would be routinely dying in mine collapses. The other alternative is to strip-mine it, which means removing hill-sides, scraping it all out, and tossing the dirt back on top.

What on earth are we going to do with all that sulfur? Better figure out a way of making solar panels out of it, and fast. Otherwise your water will end up tasting pretty funny.

3g. Am I going to say it? … The word … the awful, evil, violent, hideous concept which will kill us all? Yes.
NUCLEAR POWER (my favorite, obviously)

Capital letters are appropriate. Nuclear power has the most to offer us, IMO, out of all our energy sources to date. It is the most powerful (by several orders of magnitude) compact force that mankind has managed to tame. It’s ironic that the most publicly hated and feared means of generating electricity is the one that came closest to fulfilling all reasonable demands of environmentalists, industrialists, consumers and people who want nice open-spaces (as opposed to flatlands paved with photovoltaics). Some people, however, in the absence of being able to find reasonable objections to something they oppose, will begin to fling unreasonable objections with desperate fervor.

To hear opponents talk, a nuclear reactor is such a dangerous and unstable device that it’s ready to explode at any moment in a furious mushroom cloud. That the waste products (spent fuel rods – the same size and almost the same mass as the ones that went in in prior years) constitute some mortal danger to the public. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Nuclear waste is no more or less voluminous or massive than the rods which went into the reactor in the first place (not counting sections of de-commissioned reactors, which also have to be cut up and stored). And one nuclear fuel rod will go a very very veeeery long way. We have 103 nuclear power plants. These power plants provide 20% of our nations electricity, however. And in their years of operation, we have only produced around 50,000 tons of waste. That sounds like a lot, but compare it to billions of barrels of oil every year. Compare it to the hundreds of millions of tons of other products passing around our society every year. This waste takes the form of solid metal objects. The current storage method is to put these materials into dry-casks designed to keep the waste sealed and dry for millennia. Unfortunately, we’re currently storing these casks at the reactors themselves, or in temporary storage throughout the country, since no one wants a permanent disposal site built anywhere.

We could easily store this volume of waste in a single large storage site, like the ohio salt domes, for instance, or any other geologically stable region. Currently, our country is trying to obtain permission to bury it in a fortified hole in the side of a mountain in the middle of the desert, and even this meets resistance.

Supposedly, nuclear waste has to be stored for millions and millions and millions of years, forever. This crazed requirement is yet another unreasonable obstacle that is thrown in the way of nuclear power companies. While the radioactivity of the spent rods does persist, the output exponentially decays over time. Eventually, you’re left with the basic radiation that was present in the original uranium. It’s dangerous to be near the waste while it is unshielded and fully concentrated, but while it is underground in water-sheilded containers? Our current regulatory standards are to construct a device that can store the waste against corrosion and water for 10,000 years.

Still, people worry that some-day, in the far far unimaginable future, water will eat through the walls of the armored container and all hell will break loose. In reality, since the containers are likely to be stored in a dry environment, you’ll have to wonder if it will leach away into the water through the armored storage container at a rate appreciable enough to build up noticeable concentrations in anything, much less migrate into used ground-water reseviors. It’s almost as if the waste is to be imbued with some malevolent intent to poison us. We’re talking about solid, chemically inert metal rods, not malevolent entities out to destroy the world.

They also worry that our distant descendants (presumably too stupid to understand what nuclear waste is, or to avoid the dangers associated with breaking into our waste-storage facilities) will dig it up and eat it, or something, and must be warned of their impending doom. Hence ridiculous measures to post enduring warnings and hieroglyphics (see national geographic). I fully anticipate our descendants will break into our nuclear waste storage facilities. They’ll want the waste, because it actually isn’t “spent” by any but our present irrational standards. In fact, we’ve used less than 1% of the energy we could presumably wring out of the uranium in the rods. There are reactor cycles that can re-process that “waste” over and over and over again into newer generations of nuclear fuel by using a “breeder reactor” to breed plutonium and more U-235 from the inert U-238. (the non-fissioning uranium that composes most of the metal, it is only the U-235 that fissions). This process could extend the available enriched uranium from a centuries long supply to one that could last us millions of years (effectively forever).

Nuclear sources: Article Article
National Geographic Article

(Aside: Geez. I’m having a hard time finding numerical references. Try typing “Nuclear Waste” into a search engine to see just how wild-eyed the paranoia over this waste is. You’d think it was nerve gas or something. A poll popped up – apparently the vast majority of people believe that the US has the most nuclear waste per capita, which is totally nonsensical, seeing as how we are far from the world leaders in per-capita nuclear energy use!! This is an important insight into emotional thinking. Nuclear waste isn’t an actual product of an actual physical process to most people. Most people think of it as merely another indicator of eeeeevil. And “everyone knows” we’re the biggest selfish polluters on the planet.)

Other benefits of nuclear power are that it has a very small footprint on the world (unlike solar, wind, or bio-diesel, a nuclear plant doesn’t require thousands of square miles of coverage to do its job), it emits no carbon dioxide, it actually emits less radiation than coal plants (which actually spew trace uranium into the air with their particulates). In fact, unless your containment dome (a large concrete bunker over the reactor designed for preventing even a catastrophic internal explosion (larger than anything a reactor is capable of producing, from a nuclear professor I know) from allowing exposure to the air) is broken open somehow, they emit nothing at all.

When evaluated on its merits, nuclear power is a dream come true. I think it will become our primary energy source, no ifs, ands, or buts. Hydro-power and tidal power will also continue to provide industrial scales of energy. Wind and solar power will provide non-automotive residential energy at best. If we want to replace gasoline, I mean really want to do it, as opposed to merely sneering at gas-guzzlers and feeling good because we care, then your only real options are nuclear and hydro.

Energy: Part 3: End Notes

Other Misc Notes

(notes – we consume 73 billion barrels/year of oil. Our vehicles use 167.75 billion gallons of gasoline/day. There are 234,624,000 of them as of 2002. There are only 407,000 alternative fueled vehicles as of yet, and most of them derive from natural gas, which is a much rarer fossil fuel than oil.)


7.3 barrels/tonne crude oil
18,300 Btu/lb

5.8E6 Btu/barrel gross
1055.0559 J/Btu
6.1E9 J/barrel

Hoover Dam – 1434 MW output.

This guy thinks the most we can expect from solar is 77MW/km^2.

Earth’s radiation budget
1370 W/m^2. About half makes it to Earth. Earth is lighted about half of the time. So you get 340W/m^2 on average.

This source gives a different energy budget, taking into account clouds, ect.
He has it varying between 342 and -100W/m^2 seasonally. This is net radiation though, so it takes nighttime and Earths outbound radiation into account.

This site gives some information on photovoltaic conversion.

More photovoltaics info.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Requesting Advice 1

This semester, I'm involved in a team-class-project to solve an engineering problem. This happens a lot throughout my education, for obvious reasons. And once again the professors are distributing the usual teamwork-is-awesome stuff. Some of it pretty good this time around. However, in my experience with teamwork so far, there have been some disasters, and I was wondering how I might help steer the group clear of them, avoid causing them myself, and contribute more effectively.

My question is this: Are there any teamwork strategies that have worked extremely well from your experience, over others? Are there any failure modes that commonly happen that turn your team into a disaster?
If you were in the leader's position, how would you ensure that everyone had what information they needed? Keep meetings on task?
If you were in a follower position watching one of these failure modes occur, how do you counter it?
Do waterfall diagrams signify anything corresponding to the project? /sarcasm

Saturday, August 19, 2006

I'm a Nanotechnology Skeptic

I’m a nanotechnology skeptic. It seems like nanotechnology, as I understand it, and nanotechnology, as the popular futurist conception of it is, are two different things. You might be wondering at this point “What kind of futurist are you anyways? Nanotechnology rules. It can do anything”, which is sort of my point.

People seem to think nanotechnology can do anything. In fact, it seems they want it to be able to do anything. It seems to me almost as if people are reasoning backwards, from a desired outcome to a predetermined thing-that-should-make-it-possible. Nanotechnology is treated as a magical substance, instantly and effortlessly manipulating the world to exactly our specifications. Causing whatever we desire to appear on a whim. Turning material considerations into mere abstractions that won’t require any human attention, ushering in a classless society, and abolishing war (that should be your first clue that the desired outcome is searching for a cause, rather than vice versa) It’s also supposed to be unstoppable grey goo that could eat our entire planet with microscopic self-replicating constructors.

But when you look at things from the perspectives of the challenges facing us in even developing microscopic mechanisms, a lot of these scenarios don’t make sense.

The easiest one to debunk is the runaway replicator “grey-goo” scenario. Seeing as how we haven’t even built macroscopic von Neumann constructors (devices which are capable of producing themselves under automated control) (though by no means is this unreasonable, for a macroscopic device) that microscopic von Neumann constructors are just around the corner.

First of all, lets define how these replicators are supposed to assemble:
1) What materials are they going to assemble from? If they are going to assemble from pre-made parts, then it’s impossible for them to run wild in an environment that isn’t saturated in these pre-made parts. If, on the other hand, they are constructed from raw materials, the replicators would have to contain microscopic factories to fabricate these parts from raw materials. (Which drastically increases size and complexity – you do want these things to be microscopic, right?).

((An important caveat – I’ll get to this more at the end of the article – Life is composed of “nanotechnology” of sorts. Life has managed to solve nearly all the problems of operating at microscopic degrees of scale. It also comes with its own limitations and considerable advantages. But that’s not the popular conception of nanotechnology. The popular conception of nanotechnology is, essentially, precisely designed machines after the manner of our macroscopic devices, operating in a similar manner, using similar methods . . . just tinier. My main objections deal with this conception of nanotechnology))

a) These factories need some sort of control mechanism. If this control mechanism is an electronic computer, then these “nano-devices” aren’t going to end up being very nano in scale. Electronic computers are necessarily macroscopic devices. You need a certain minimum size for transistors to work (around 50nm/transistor), for heat to adequately dissipate, for electromagnetic interference of one switch to be minimized at the next one over, ect.
b) There are, of course, other types of control mechanisms, but these are severely limited with respect to the directness of our control. One such example is the chemical “computer” of our DNA. If our nanotechnology devices are controlled by such means, then it means that we won’t be able to give each device real-time marching orders. The best we could do is give behavioral pattern type instructions and turn them loose to do their thing.
c) Are these devices going to assemble from metals? If so, your replicators can’t run wild, seeing as how they would need a metal rich environment in which to draw their materials from.
----i) How are you going to get the energy to work metals anyhow?
d) The only real option for runaway replicators is for them to be assembled from ubiquitous materials such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen. The same materials that life in general assembles from. But this brings up a host of issues, not the least of which is that you’re not making tiny little machine tools and lathes out of sugars, amino acids, and other molecules that would rather dissolve in water!

2) Where will these runaway replicators get the energy to run-away? It follows that for this grey goo to be able to eat the world, it has to have an independent energy source. If it gets its food from operating in a fuel medium, then it can’t run away.
a) If they get their food from eating other organisms and burning their molecules, then the replicators have to be able to get a sufficient energy return on their investment. That means that they not only have to be more efficient than life at doing what they do, they also can only attack and survive in organisms with a sufficient density of consumable molecules. They can’t expand and eat just anything. They would be, at worst, opportunistic parasites.
b) If they use solar power to replicate, then they can get independent power. But the power available to your grey-goo is not going to be sufficient for it to chase people around the block and eat city blocks within half an hour. In fact, it would be downright slow – no faster than your average moss growing on a pond, assuming they are even as efficient in self-replication.

3) This just segues into the next point: Will these devices be able to out-compete life? Will it be the nano-devices that end up snacking on people, pavement, plants and other life, or will bacteria and viruses be the ones eating your nano-devices for lunch? They are made from similar materials, but life has a serious advantage over designed nanotechnology: It is supremely adapted for operating on its degree of scale. Billions of years of ruthless competition have resolved the microscopic world of life into self-replicating surviving, eating, breathing, metabolizing, photosynthesizing machines of extreme complexity, unsaddled by human preconceived notions of what replicators should operate like. Would we be capable of designing anything to beat that so easily? I think not.

So now on to mechanical nanotechnology in general: By now, if you’ve given it some thought, you can probably see how little tiny robotic arms are going to be a bit problematic on the nanotechnological degree of scale. For one thing, it’s hard to get anything to be rigid if it’s only a few thousand atoms across. Temperature introduces noise at that degree of scale. Furthermore, chemical electromagnetic forces come into play that make operating a little tricky. If your robotic arm grabs a large macromolecule, the molecule might not decide to come off! It might electrostatically bind to the end of the arm. If it chemically reacts with your arm, it’s likely to release so much energy (for the degree-of-scale that we’re talking about here) that it fries your device, as well as putting extreme loads on the arm. Grabbing molecules with “little tiny robotic arms TM, would be like handling glue-coated land-mines with blunt jello baseball bats. Corrosion would be deadly to a nanodevice. A reaction with a stray oxygen molecule in the wrong place could eat through a critical mechanism (and fry the device through energy release). (The best defense against grey-goo is likely to be a lysol wipe. )

So, as you can see, producing mechanical nano-devices is simple. It’s just a matter of making a really really tiny self-replicating robot, and you’ll be ordering mountains of matter around on the molecular level (effortlessly, btw), and blackmailing the world with planet eating grey-goo in no time. /sarcasm.

Mechanical nanotechnology could probably be made to do some important work, such as ordering molecules around on a microchip, constructing microscopic sensors, threading the wiring for other very small devices. What it is not likely to be is effortless or cheap, since it is not likely to have the capability to easily self replicate. You might be able to get your nano-metallic-print head for a layered-substrate type of device, but it will probably set you back some, since it is likely to be a very tricky thing to construct.

Biological nanotechnology:

I’m not a complete curmudgeon when it comes to nanotechnology replicators however. I do think that there is one type of nanotechnology replicator that might work some real wonders if we keep at it. Rather than re-inventing the automobile starting in the stone age, let’s hijack some of the wild ones running around in the open plains, so to speak. You’ll probably get more mileage by ordering bacteria around, giving bacteria the genetic instructions on what you want them to do, rather than attempting to build the things from scratch with tweezers and a microscope.

This offers some advantages – the nanotechnology, once told what to do, will be able to self-organize into structures of extraordinary complexity.

One advanced example might be neural interface. You could try doing neural interface the old fashioned way by going in with tweezers, and attaching metal electrodes, but this is a rather blunt way to do things. For one things, your neurosurgeon would have to have very steady hands and an extreme amount of patience (1 retinal connection down, 100 billion to go ….) These connections are also likely to produce allergic reactions, or kill the nerve cells they’re next to. If you could produce the connection by having micro-organisms go in under the orders to interface with the neurons and create neuron chains back up to the surface, then expand their resolution out to something that a mechanical device can handle, you could create the biological equivalent of an interface port. Furthermore, inside your skull, these microorganisms could be equipped with all your surface markers, so that your immune system doesn’t reject the interface. I really don’t see too many other ways to get the sort of intimate mind-machine interface depicted in the Matrix than to do it under the fine and autonomous control of biology.

Another example might be the improvement of your immune system. If you can create some mean-lean-fighting bacteria with an improved understanding of what constitutes an invader to your body, then you could give them the body’s cell markers and send them in to kick butt throughout your numerous lymph-passageways.

You could grow multi-cellular “meat” in a vat of oxidized sugar-water (after making sure you seal off the tank from other less tasty opportunists, like mold and rot). You could probably create new culinary experiences of extremely interesting variety and texture by controlling how your organism goes together. You could use a multi-cellular organism to produce any sort of conceivable organic molecule assuming you can tell a ribosome or a protien how to turn it out.

However, the disadvantages of biological nanotechnology are also the disadvantages of life. Some of the difficulties that I forsee in using them to construct macroscopic devices are given below:

1) It’s not going to be instantaneous. In fact, it’s not even going to be all that fast. If you plant your crop of car bodies in May, they might be melon sized by June. If it’s in a vat of fuel, it may grow faster, but it’s not going to be as fast as a big blunt stamp on sheet metal.

2) How do you say 14.5 inches +/- 0.001 across in a self-organizing pattern language, like you would with DNA instructions on how to organize and grow? Life forms up and grows according to patterns. It usually assembles and iterates out the pattern, then begins growing according to the pattern to the best of it’s ability.

If you, say, planted a crop of bio-nano-replicators that are supposed to assemble the copper sludge in the bottom of a nutrient tank into regenerative rocket nozzles, then your rocket nozzles are likely to come in as varied an amount of shapes and sizes as the tomatoes in your back garden. Some might be four feet wide. Some might be three feet wide. Some might have larger nozzles in relation to your combustion chamber. Some combustion chambers may not be exactly cylindrical. The throat area would vary as well. Some might be stunted. Mechanically, it would be a disaster.

Lastly, it’s not going to be effortless or free. It’s not going to provide people with free products and services, or pave the way for an economy where you can be a bum and reap the sorts of rewards inherent in this technology. This is because it is going to take a whole lot of sweat and effort to make these nanotechnology devices do what they’re supposed to. You’ll have to have macromolecule designers that figure out what you want these things to go into your body and do. You’re going to have biological programmers that figure out how to encode what you want the bacteria to do in the madcap language of DNA and RNA. You’re going to have trial runs to see if these replicators do only what you intend them to do (rather than having your mind machine interface organism setting up shop in your kidneys and growing tumors as well, or your macromolecule factory bacteria producing not just some miracle drug, but also a nasty allergen while it’s at it). You’re going to have nano-device farmers that take the finished product out of the tanks and cut off all the assembly sludge, waste products, and unneeded tissue. All these people will want to be paid. They’re not going to be impressed with this classless economy nonsense.

I envision nanotechnology being primarily used for fine control. For going in and producing biological effects of extreme complexity. For producing small devices of similarly extraordinary complexity. For farming out macromolecules, or growing food tissue, or being used as a biological recycling mechanism for life support.

But I don’t envision it as being used to grow cars and construction equipment. If you need to bend metal, you’re probably better off having a macroscopic robot pick up a macroscopic hammer (or die) and go at it the old fashioned way.

Well, that's my long winded opinion. What do you think? Discuss. Discuss, I say!!