This is one of those stories that makes you go "Hmmm...." and was spotted by Ms. K.M. who sent it along with the observation that the "breakaway group" appears to be gradually leaking more and more information about its capabilities. We'll get back to that and to today's high octane speculation in a moment. The story is an article written by Eric Mack for Forbes magazine, and it contains some rather stunning statements. Here's the story:
Now if you're like me, there's a few statements in that article that caught your eye. The first little bombshell was this:
A startup with alumni from MIT and Yale says it's made a breakthrough in creating a next-generation material that should make it possible to 3-d print literally anything out of thin air.
New York-based Mattershift has managed to create large-scale carbon nanotube (CNT) membranes that are able to combine and separate individual molecules.
"This technology gives us a level of control over the material world that we've never had before," said Mattershift Founder and CEO Dr. Rob McGinnis in a release. "For example, right now we're working to remove CO2 from the air and turn it into fuels. This has already been done using conventional technology, but it's been too expensive to be practical. Using our tech, I think we'll be able to produce carbon-zero gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels that are cheaper than fossil fuels."
The company says their breakthrough brings down the difficulty and cost of manufacturing the material, which should allow the technology to burst out of the confines of university labs.
Following this little bombshell, toward the end of the article there's this:
"It should be possible to combine different types of our CNT membranes in a machine that does what molecular factories have long been predicted to do: to make anything we need from basic molecular building blocks," said McGinnis. "We're talking about printing matter from the air. Imagine having one of these devices with you on Mars. You could print food, fuels, building materials, and medicines from the atmosphere and soil or recycled parts without having to transport them from Earth."
A molecular factory is a long-predicted technology that, in theory, should be able to accomplish some of what the Replicator from "Star Trek" does, although not nearly as cleanly as on the show.
So look what we have:
(1) a claim that a new nano-engineering technology has been achieved dramatically lowering both cost and difficulty of manufacture; (2) a claim that this capability will basically allow Erix Drexler's old dream of genuine engineering at a molecular level, including the ability to take one kind of material and transform it bottom-up into another finished product without the usual machining; and (3) that this ability also implies an ability to reengineer basic carbonm based fuels that are both cleaner and cheaper.
Now, if you're like me, I've long suspected that such stories are one of two things: (1) pipe dreams, or (2) a "slow drip drip drip" of information into the public of things that have actually been covertly achieved, and in this case, I suspect the latter for a very interesting reason that I've blogged about before on this site: 3d printing, or to give it its more technical name, "additive manufacturing." The fundamental difference between conventional machining and additive manufacturing is not so much in the final product, but in the way the final product comes about. Say, for example, that you want to make a replacement leg for a dining room table, and you have some metal and wood-working expertise and a lathe in your shop. You go out, buy some wood, and turn out a new table leg on your lathe by subtractive machining, chipping wood away from the wood until the table leg is revealed. In the process, some of the original wood is wasted. With additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, the new table leg is printed in three-dimensional versions of computer pixels, tiny bit by tiny bit is added to a construction until the new table leg emerges, and it emerges with notably little waste as compared to turning the leg on a lathe through the process of subtractive manufacturing.
Now scale that process down to the size of a molecule, and Eric Drexler's 1990s dream of "engines of creation", the title of his book first introducing the concept of nano-engineering to the general public, comes true. One has, as Mr. Mack puts it in his Forbes article, a distinctive step in the technology tree toward the "Star Trek replicator", which, if one knows the lore of that popular science fiction television series, produces things - including foods and drinks - by nano-engineering them into existence from other material. It is, so to speak, the ultimate in recycling. One can imagine, for example, the utility of such a technology to the problem of waste, human and otherwise. Giant landfills of garbage would be a thing of the past, as materials could be broken down molecule by molecule, and re-engineered from the molecule up into new products. Of course, this has its downside, but I'll leave that, for the moment, to your imagination.
None of this is, however, my high octane speculation of the day. My high octane speculation concerns more the possibility that this story might be a "drip drip drip" sort of story, of the sort that is designed to prepare the public for a dramatic and drastic shift in paradigms of "how things are done." Consider only my "nano-waste recycling" scenario. when Drexler first wrote Engines of Creation about the whole subject of nano-engineering, the topic was so bizarre and "out there" that he made an appearance on Art Bell's popular overnight radio show, Coast to Coast AM. But Drexler pointed out something in his book that should give us pause, something that in my opinion might make the "drip drip drip" interpretation of this new discovery all but certain. Drexler revealed in his book two astonishing things. First, that IBM had managed to spell out its corporate logo using a small amount of xenon atoms. And as if that were not impressive enough, Drexler also pointed out that AT&T's laboratories had successfully created the first man-made atom. That was in the 1990s, folks.
And to top off my speculation about this story possibly being one of those "slow and deliberate releases" of information about capabilities in the possession of some "breakaway civilization," I've also pointed ouy on occasion that 3-D printing itself has been around in the military and corporate worlds since at least the 1970s. Just as computers have been around since World War Two, but became a public technology affordable and practical for public use in the 1980s and 1990s, 3-d printing is now increasingly cheaper, and home versions are being made and sold as we speak. Wed the two technologies - additive manufacturing, and nano-engineering - and that "Star Trek replicator" technology is not all that far away.
And let us note something very significant. Such a technology would not only be a boon to long-term human space missions, it would be almost a prerequisite condition to their feasibility... especially if one wants not only to mine asteroids, but to manufacture, on the spot, products from what has been mined.
See you on the flip side...