The Star Trek franchise has always served as a fount of ideas for futurists. From wireless communication devises to tractor beams, scientists have spent decades trying to create real-life versions of the fictional innovations they’ve seen on their television screens. Perhaps no technology has seemed further from our grasp than the series’ replicators. These devices are first shown to be able to create basic food rations before receiving upgrades that allowed them to create sophisticated meals and industrial materials, all of these items being created seemingly from thin air. But something from nothing is not a feasible area of academic study, what with the violating the laws of physics and everything. Or at least that’s what scientists have believed for the last few hundred years or so until 3D printers came along that is.
3D printers have not quite reached ubiquitous status here in 2019, but they are common enough to be available for purchase by private individuals at a not too exorbitant price. By using a CAD blueprint and a corresponding material type (the list grows daily), a 3D printer can create one of more than a million everyday objects in just a few short hours. Chairs, cars, even an acoustic guitar; all you need is a design, raw material, and time.
Remarkable as that is, it’s still not at the level of Star Trek’s replicators. Those machines are more than printers, they are what famed engineer K. Eric Drexler called “molecular assemblers”, machines that can rearrange matter at an atomic level. The good news is that molecular assemblers do already exist, inside us. Ribosomes are biological machines that exist in the cytoplasm of our cells (in the cells of all living things actually). They use RNA “blueprints” to build specific protein molecules. The key to creating real-life replicators is to find a way to copy this process using man-made machines.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But a recent breakthrough announced by New York startup Mattershift may finally achieve the Trekkie dream of replicator technology. Mattershift has created large-scale carbon nanotube (CNT) membranes that can manipulate individual molecules, combining and separating them according to programmable blueprints. If these large-scale CNT membranes perform as well as their small-scale prototypes (and initial reports say they do) and can be feasibly produced at something less than the GDP of a small nation-state (and initial reports say they can), then our entire world is about to change.
Beyond simply building you a set of steak knives out of thin air, this technology can mass-produce medications and create clean-burning fuels, changing the way we address healthcare and energy needs overnight. Heck, in pulling carbon molecules from the air these CNT membranes have the added effect of acting as C02 scrubbers when programmed correctly. It would also make extra-planetary exploration far more feasible, allowing astronauts teams to create what they need out of the materials that they find rather than being forced to take everything with them.
While the technology still has a way to go before it meets Chief Miles O’Brien’s standards, real-life replicator technology is now in its primitive stages, with promising breakthroughs that might truly let us create basic necessities and tools out of thin air. An achievement that seemed impossible only thirty years ago. I might be jumping the gun a bit but I’m going to go ahead and say Replicators, We Can Do That Now!