X prize proposals

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The WTN and X Prize (the people who put the first civilian American in space) are working to develop a new set of prizes. One of their areas of interest is molecular manufacturing. What can be proposed?

There appears to be no reason not to submit multiple proposals. The proposals below are not in competition. Suggest improvements and/or add your own proposal.


Programmable molecular manufacturing machines

This proposal originates with Chris Phoenix, CRN.

Name of challenge

WTN X PRIZE for a Computer Controlled Molecular Manufacturing Machine

Brief description

The ultimate goal of nanotechnology is to build large, strong, complex, functional structures with every atom in an engineered position. This can only be efficient if nanomachines can be used to do the building. To date, no field of nanotechnology has come close to this capability.

A major milestone would be any molecular machine that can be directed to build a functional duplicate of itself. Such a system could be very useful for R&D, making it relatively easy to build multiple copies and improved designs. It would help to settle a lingering uncertainty about whether human-designed molecular machines, far less complicated than biological life, could be used for general-purpose construction. It would probably be capable of building some commercially useful products.

In short, achievement of this goal would have a stimulating effect on technical development, as well as encouraging and grounding policy discussions.

The proposed goal for this prize: Build a molecular machine with a well-defined chemical formula, activated by direct computer control, which is capable of reliably fabricating a range of engineered molecular systems and structures including the fabrication machine itself, using only small molecules.

Suggested rules

1) Input molecules must all be smaller than 2000 Daltons (about 6 RNA bases). Molecules may be flushed through in sequence, controlled by external equipment. This is to prevent undirected self-assembly from being the main construction method.

2) One machine must be able to build a duplicate machine under computer control, with no human intervention, within 48 hours. Then, up to one hour of lab work (human intervention, with any other desired equipment) is allowed to activate the second machine. Then the second machine must build a third machine within 48 hours, which must similarly be functional after one additional hour of lab work.

3) These three machines, working in parallel, must be able to produce molecular structures recognizably spelling "WTN" as imaged by scanning probe or electron microscope, without human intervention, and without the use of additional equipment to position the molecules (e.g. automated scanning probe). Each letter must be a single molecule having a well-defined chemical formula.

4) A graphical interface must be provided that allows an untrained user to design new molecular shapes and have them built in parallel by the three machines. Restrictions are allowed on form and connectivity, but the interface must present at least 1,000,000 possibilities, and every possibility presented must be buildable and recognizable under microscopy. Asymmetric structures must be available, and must be oriented correctly.


Suggested Time Life of the Award (how long given to win?): 5 years

How Many Companies to Compete? 50 (companies, academic labs, etc.)

Suggested Prize Amount: $5,000,000

Suggested Funding Mechanism: [Anyone have any ideas?]

Diamond-building tool tip

(This section was mostly written by Rob Freitas, posted with permission by Chris Phoenix, CRN.)

In response to Chris's proposal (above), Rob wrote: "I continue to believe that an experimental demonstration of mechanosynthesis is the lynchpin of MNT development. I would focus X-Prize attention on that ($5M, 5 years). Goal: build a positionally-controlled tooltip capable of positionally fabricating another tooltip exactly like itself (with the second tooltip then used to build a third, to pass the "fertility test"), with feedstock molecules no larger than 26 atoms [later changed to 6 to prevent the use of adamantane building blocks] and the tooltip no smaller than 1000 atoms. Tooltip must be manipulated by a positional placement mechanism like SPM or equivalent; self-assembly is forbidden."

Rob then wrote this proposal:

Name of challenge

WTN X PRIZE for Demonstration of Practical Molecular Manufacturing

Brief description of suggested challenge

Molecular nanotechnology is the thorough, inexpensive control of the structure of matter based on molecule-by-molecule manufacturing techniques. The ability to fabricate machines with molecular precision will lead most importantly to the development of nanorobotic medicine, or nanomedicine (http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/1.3.1.htm), which in turn will give physicians, for the first time in history, comprehensive molecular control over the physiological processes and pathogens of the human body (http://www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/SayAh/index.html). This will dramatically improve human health and significantly extend human longevity, perhaps by many multiples (http://www.rfreitas.com/Nano/DeathIsAnOutrage.htm).

The principal impediment to molecular manufacturing today is the lack of an experimental procedure for routinely and precisely building objects, atom by atom, at the molecular scale. The key to establishing this capability is molecular positional assembly, or mechanosynthesis (http://www.rfreitas.com/Nano/DimerTool.htm) – the site-specific formation of covalent chemical bonds using precisely applied mechanical forces. The best possible building materials for medical nanorobots, and other nanotechnology-based products, are believed to be diamondoid substances (diamond, carbon nanotubes and fullerenes, sapphire, etc.). Diamond, a simple but strong material consisting only of carbon and hydrogen atoms, is ideal.

The landmark experimental demonstration of positional atomic assembly occurred in 1989 when Eigler and Schweizer at IBM Almaden spelled out the IBM logo using 35 xenon atoms arranged on nickel surface using a scanning probe microscope (SPM). Oyabu and colleagues at Osaka University achieved the first experimental demonstration of mechanosynthesis in 2003 (http://link.aps.org/abstract/PRL/v90/e176102), using purely mechanical forces to make and break covalent bonds, first abstracting and then rebonding a single silicon atom to a silicon surface with SPM positional control at a temperature near absolute zero. Theoretical studies (http://foresight.org/stage2/mechsynthbib.html) have confirmed that room-temperature diamond mechanosynthesis is possible, and a practical experimental approach which could be used to build the first primitive carbon dimer deposition tools, or other simple tools for diamond mechanosynthesis, was proposed in 2004 (http://www.MolecularAssembler.com/Papers/PathDiamMolMfg.htm).

The Challenge: achieve the first experimental demonstration of commercially useful positionally-controlled molecularly-precise diamondoid mechanosynthesis. Such a demonstration would confirm that this new method of manufacturing useful materials (nanostructured diamondoid) at normal operating temperatures (room temperature) is feasible. It would immediately and directly enable further development of diamondoid molecular manufacturing to proceed, eventually precipitating a “gold rush” of academic and commercial activity to extend this achievement – first, for the construction of simple useful molecularly precise devices, and later, as the technology progresses, for the construction of increasingly complex nanorobotic machines and new methods of massively parallel molecular manufacturing that will allow the inexpensive fabrication of macroscale quantities of nanoscale-structured materials, devices, and machines. Meeting this Challenge is the linchpin of practical molecular nanotechnology. This Challenge will help jumpstart an entirely new manufacturing technology destined to dominate the 21st century – thus establishing a secure and important place in human history for the WTN X-Prize program.

Suggested potential rules

(1) For molecularly-precise diamondoid mechanosynthesis, build a positionally-controlled tool (e.g., http://www.rfreitas.com/Nano/DimerTool.htm) consisting of no fewer than 1000 atoms (e.g., http://www.MolecularAssembler.com/Papers/PathDiamMolMfg.htm#Slide109). This tool must be capable of positionally fabricating another tool exactly like itself, using input feedstock molecules each composed of no more than 6 atoms.

(2) The second tool (that is manufactured by the first tool) must then be used to build a third identical tool, using the same manufacturing process that produced the second tool, thus proving that the manufactured (second) tool is as capable as the first tool, and that the manufacturing process can be extended indefinitely.

(3) Again using the same manufacturing process that produced it, the third tool must then be used to spell out the letters “WTN” within a maximum 10 x 15 nm rectangular area on an atomically flat surface, with individual letters no taller than 5 Angstroms (measured from atomic centers), thus proving that the tool is capable of fabricating a molecularly precise product other than more tools. Writing of the three letters (cf., http://www.MolecularAssembler.com/Papers/PathDiamMolMfg.htm#Slide106) will be verified by SPM scanning or equivalent means.

(4) Once it has acquired a feedstock molecule, the mechanosynthesis tool must be manipulated by a mechanism such as a scanning probe microscope tip or functionally equivalent technique, such that continuous positional control of the toolbound feedstock molecule and the workpiece is maintained. Self-assembly to fabricate the workpiece is forbidden, although self-assembly may be used solely to recharge a spent tool with a fresh feedstock molecule as long as the recharged tool is manipulated positionally thereafter.

(5) “Positional control,” positional manipulation, or positional fabrication in the context of this Prize is defined as a manufacturing procedure in which components used in a construction are held in known positions and are constrained to follow desired intermediate physical pathways throughout the entire construction sequence.

(6) “Diamondoid” in the context of this Prize is defined in Drexler’s (http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/nanosystems.html) expanded sense as “structures that resemble diamond in a broad sense: strong, stiff structures containing dense, 3-D networks of covalent bonds, formed chiefly from first and second row atoms with a valence of three or more, many of [which] will be rich in tetrahedrally coordinated carbon.”

(7) The mechanosynthetic tool and its manipulator mechanisms must receive all reagents, energy, and control information from external sources, thus exemplifying “inherently safe” molecular manufacturing as described in the Foresight Guidelines (http://www.foresight.org/guidelines/).


Suggested Time Life of the Award (how long given to win)?

10 years

How Many Companies to Compete?

20-30 companies and/or university laboratories

Suggested Prize Amount:


Suggested Funding Mechanisms (ideas for the best way and/or the sources to raise the money to pay off the winner of the challenge competition):

(1) an international consortium of interested organizations could manage the project, allowing interested parties to build on the strength of worldwide talent and diversity. Participating organizations might include the Foresight Institute (http://www.foresight.org), the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (http://www.imm.org), or other interested nonprofit organizations. The actual competition would be via separate project teams, and the joint venture (consortium) would be a mechanism to fundraise, administer and publicize the prize.

(2) high-net-worth individuals, investment groups, or corporations who would invest in the Prize in return for a pro rata partial ownership share of the valuable intellectual property created by the successful completion of the Challenge, and of the accelerated technological opportunities it would create.

(3) high-net-worth individuals or investment groups interested in personally extended healthspan and extreme longevity, that will be enabled by the accelerated arrival of molecular nanotechnology and nanomedicine.

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