Public-Private Partnerships

Atomically Precise Manufacturing

We address this question as it relates to Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM), a critical technology specifically cited in one of PCAST’s White Papers for this question:

“ISSUE: What should be the Federal Government’s role in the development of production processes and related sensing, measurement, and analytical capabilities for molecular-level, atomically precise production.”

This has been a central question for both the Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing since our inceptions in 1986 and 1991, respectively. Our position is that the development of Productive Nanosystems—high volume, lost-cost assembly systems for atomically precise products—is of strategic importance to our nation. Projected benefits promise clean and abundant energy, permanent cures for serious diseases, a clean environment, and the security of advanced capabilities for a strong national defense. APM will dramatically reduce the cost of manufacturing most commercial products, paying for its development costs many times over, but the technical challenges and development time horizon have precluded major initiatives by industry players.

In addressing the question of consortia, we broaden our response to consider a range of complementary approaches. The scientific and engineering challenges needed to develop Atomically Precise Manufacturing requires a focus and commitment that extends well beyond the limitations of a consortium-based activity, and is best handled by a mix of programs that focus on different strengths:

- Consortia

- Incentive prizes

- 3-5 year Fixed Fee Small Business Initiatives

- DOE or NIH Grant Programs

- Major DoD or NASA Acquisition Programs

A table comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches is available at:

SBIR/STTR projects are useful as quick ways to provide funding to smaller teams in industry and academia, stimulating innovative R&D projects toward APM in the short term. Incentive prizes (Xprize, DARPA challenges) are particularly good at organizing entrepreneurial teams to integrate and make operational technologies that have been developed, but are immature. Consortia will take longer to organize, but can leverage private capital and create incentives for industry to cooperate on a massive precompetitive R&D base.

To create focused research results that will provide major advances in Energy and Medicine, and a flow of knowledge to the industry teams, we recommend the use of grant programs funded by NIH and DOE. These target areas are detailed in the Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems, available at

Developing APM systems requires a long term commitment on the order of 10-15 years. For the complex and focused systems integration and engineering program that we envision, the structured discipline developed for major federal acquisitions by NASA and DoD is an ideal approach. Awarding two or three prime contracts with alternative development approaches (as with the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program) will provide more widespread participation, reduce overall risk, and accelerate development to the benefit of all.

Unlike in most large federal acquisition programs, and certainly unlike in a typical consortium-based effort, there are major policy issues to be addressed at the national and international levels. The impact of APM on the economy, nationally and internationally, will require an engaged discussion from a wide range of stakeholders. And the technology will be dual-use—mandating DoD involvement toward objectives that are stabilizing and positive for global security.

Many rewards and challenges await. This is a program worthy of becoming our highest national priority, with the attendant devotion of our best minds and strongest spirits.

Respectfully submitted,

David Forrest, President of IMM and Senior Fellow with the Foresight Institute

Neil Jacobstein, Chairman, Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, CEO, Teknowledge

Christine Peterson, President, Foresight Institute


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Similar Ideas [ 4 ]


  1. Comment

    When is that "fusion" deal going to work? How many TRILLIONS have been wasted on that technology? How many more years and dollars will be spent on something that will never work like the

    "fusion generators" that science has been working on for decades?

  2. Comment

    The comment by "alateinc" represents a frustration that many of us have with innovation. What it means to be innovative is that most people don't think it can work. At one time cars were an innovation as were airplanes. The computer that alateinc used to enter his message and the webpage he entered his message into were considered innovations just a couple decades ago. Nanotechnology is considered to be an innovation by most poeple today. The irony is that people themselves are esentially nanotechnology. We have atomically precise parts, we are built, we move, etc. If "alateinc" and I can type into a web page, nanotechnology is not just possible, it already exists. I will agree that it is expensive, difficult and will take years for us to have as much direct control over molecular machinery as life does. Those characteristics are shared by the US wars in Iraq and Afganistan so clearly we Americans don't shy away from projects that are expensive, difficult and will take years. The question is, which of those projects will we devote our resources to? Will we devote them to mid-east wars that will likely just cause more wars? Will we devote them to bailing out Detroit which will continue to funnel money into oil wars and degrade the environment which itself will cause food and water shortage wars?

    Or do we devote those reources to technologies that can dramatically increase well-being while lowering energy usage and environmental degredation? To successfully implement Nanotech we must solve a lot of problems. But unlike most other challenges we face, Nanotech can solve many problems that incremental improvement of conventional manufacturing can not.

  3. Comment

    I don't know about the differences between different research programs as this I guess you could call it a request for research funding article seems to be concerned about. The point I'd focus more on is the necesity of making nanomanufacturing happen.

    We've just had a hugh oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and based on what I just heard last night(the first time I really tried to check out what's going on with this oil spill), this oil spill is going to go on till august. That sounds like the biggest manmade catastrophe ever. Global warming would top it off; but, the development of nanotechnologies will probably solve that problem before the worst of that problem. One problem with this whole oil spill is everyone is trying to take this oil spill to argue for alternative energy. I'm not going to argue against trying to find and develop some alternative energy sources, but the fact is none of those solutions are going to come inexpensivelly. They could with nanomanufacturing though! This has scared lots of people about our oil dependence and it should. But, the fact is we're stuck with this oil dependence. Because of this situation, we're forced to drill deeper and deeper. This has gotten more and more dangerous, and we've just seen the result. It's only going to get more dangerous and hard to get more oil out of the ground. Your two options are to colonize and tap the resources of mars or develop nanomanufacturing.

    The U.S. government has been willing to fight a war in Afganistand and Iraq over oil and terrorism(the terrorism is partly because of our dependence on oil in the Arab nations area). This fighting has cost billions of dollars a month. The mars program can cost fifty billion dollars just to get it going. The tapping of the resources can pay back. But, there's also this nanomanufacturing. I'm not going to say how much it's going to cost, but once made, we'll be off oil dependence(or at least, if we want any, we'll just make it instead of drilling for it), and we can settle mars and everywhere else in the solar system for peanuts(like maybe one bag of it at a baseball game; this may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but maybe not that far off!). Nanomanufacturing will solve all physical problems so long as those who are in charge are willing to solve those problems(health, economy and food)

    Today it seems to me, research in nanomanufacturing is where the nanotechnologists hoped they were at back in the eighties. Basically, they thought they were pretty close to being able to start making nanomanufacturing systems. But, as it turned out the molecular simutions weren't sophisticated enough; or, it took longer to develop those tools. The ability to make the enabling technologies to make nanomanufacturing systems seems to be in hand today when they weren't back then. Dna-nanomanufacturing looks capable of positioning individual molecules, and Eric Drexler has pointed out a number of self-assembling molecular tool possiblities from foldomers to I think peptides(I can't seem to get into his metamodern webblog right now) This is the Greek chorus of whoa as Ed Regis said in his "Nano" book!

    I'd go so far as to recommend not funding a mars program. You have to keep funding some space projects like weather and communications satellites(and science probes are not so expensive!). I'd stop fundind the war effort in Iraq and the terrorism. When will we learn to outgrow people who don't want to think?! With nanomanufactuing, you'll more than capable of sniffing out stone age terrorists. With nanomanufacturing, instead of fighting over the earths resources, we can let those who have been held down by those who have entrenched interest whether religious or racial to just shoot for the stars!

  4. Comment

    Perhaps we need to build a multi-billion dollar fabrication plant to building carbon nanotubes. Perhaps it is like building 100 hand-held telescopes versus one big one. Which is better? So why do you ask for tiny chunks of $100K SBIRs and STTRs?