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:
- 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: http://imm.org/images/IMM-FI-R&DLeverageTable.jpg
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 www.foresight.org/roadmaps
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.
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