Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines

© 2004 Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Ralph C. Merkle, Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 2004.


4.9.1 Drexler Generic Assembler (1986)

In 1986, Drexler [199] described a generic molecular assembler as resembling a factory shrunk to a size smaller than an individual biological cell: “They will contain nanomachines mounted on a molecular framework and conveyor belts to move parts from machine to machine. Outside, they will have a set of assembler arms for building replicas of themselves, an atom or a section at a time. Imagine an advanced assembler that contains a million atoms: it can have as many as ten thousand moving parts, each containing an average of one hundred atoms – enough parts to make up a rather complex machine. In fact, the assembler itself looks like a box supporting a stubby robot arm a hundred atoms long. The box and arm contain devices that move the arm from position to position, and others that change the molecular tools at its tip.

“Behind the box sits a device that reads a tape and provides mechanical signals that trigger arm motions and tool changes. In front of the arm sits an unfinished structure. Conveyors bring molecules to the assembler system. Some supply energy to motors that drive the tape reader and arm, and others supply groups of atoms for assembly. Atom by atom (or group by group), the arm moves pieces into place as directed by the tape; chemical reactions bond them to the structure on contact. These assemblers will work fast. A fast enzyme, such as carbonic anhydrase or ketosteroid isomerase, can process almost a million molecules per second, even without conveyors and power-driven mechanisms to slap a new molecule into place as soon as an old one is released. A human arm can flap up and down several times per second, [but] an assembler arm will be about fifty million times shorter than a human arm, and so it will be able to move back and forth about fifty million times more rapidly. For an assembler arm to move a mere million times per second would be like a human arm moving about once per minute: sluggish.”

“Assemblers will not replicate by themselves; they will need materials and energy, and instructions on how to use them. Ordinary chemicals can supply materials and energy, but nanomachinery must be available to process them. Bumpy polymer molecules can code information like a punched paper tape, but a reader must be available to translate the patterns of bumps into patterns of arm motion. Together, these parts form the essentials of a replicator: the tape supplies instructions for assembling a copy of the assembler, of the reader, of the other nanomachines, and of the tape itself.

“A reasonable design for this sort of replicator will likely include several assembler arms and several more arms to hold and move workpieces. Each of these arms will add another million atoms or so. The other parts – tape readers, chemical processors, and so forth – may also be as complicated as assemblers. Finally, a flexible replicator system will probably include a simple computer; this will add roughly 100 million atoms. Altogether, these parts will total less than 150 million atoms. Assume instead a total of one billion, to leave a wide margin for error. Ignore the added capability of the additional assembler arms, leaving a still wider margin. Working at one million atoms per second, the system will still copy itself in one thousand seconds, or a bit over fifteen minutes – about the time a bacterium takes to replicate under good conditions.

“Imagine such a replicator floating in a bottle of chemicals, making copies of itself. It builds one copy in one thousand seconds, thirty-six in ten hours. Each copy, though, will build yet more copies. Thus the first replicator assembles a copy in one thousand seconds, the two replicators then build two more in the next thousand seconds, the four build another four, and the eight build another eight. At the end of ten hours, there are not thirty-six new replicators, but over 68 billion. In less than a day, they would weigh a ton….”


Last updated on 1 August 2005