Thursday, September 10, 2015

3D printers can't print nuclear weapons - but they can cause a lot of public confusion

Imagine my bemusement when I saw this Washingon Post article on Twitter, titled "You can print your own guns at home. Next it will be nuclear weapons. Really.", written by LSU political science professor Daniel C. Tirone and his graduate student, James Gilley. Here's the relevant paragraph:
When should we expect to see WMDs that can be printed at home? 
...Most important, laboratories have already printed at the molecular level using base atoms — which can lead to printing nuclear materials. Such printing will probably migrate out of the lab within 20 to 30 years. These trends will accelerate with improved printer resolution and advances in the types of materials used. Within the past two decades, 3-D printers have gone from being formidably expensive laboratory instruments to desktop boxes that cost less than $1,500. Prices will keep dropping as the technology advances, so private users will one day be able to afford more complex printers that can produce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
After some conversation on Twitter where chemists (including Barney Grubbs) began to critique the author, the article was changed to read the following:
...Most important, laboratories have already printed at the molecular level. Continuing progress in this area could allow for subatomic printing using the basic components of atoms – which can lead to printing nuclear materials. Such printing will probably migrate out of the lab within 20 to 30 years. 
You will be wildly amused to discover that the link to "printed at the molecular level" links to an article in a student newspaper describing UIUC chemistry professor Martin Burke's flow synthesizer in rather breathless terms as a 3D printer of molecules.

Where to start?

First, Tirone and Gilley's prediction is very, very unlikely to come to pass. It belies a complete lack of understanding of the science behind 3D printing. I think Prof. Grubbs has done a much better job explaining it than I ever could, so I think folks should go over there for his explanation.

I have a different question: why does 3D printing make people speculate so wildly?

This is not the only case. Prof. Lee Cronin's work making 3D printed reactionware set off a lot of press about the 3D printing of medicine. I learned about Cambrian Genomics' technology because a Wall Street Journal interview with a manufacturing expert described them this way: "They built a machine that 3-D prints DNA."  Nope, not so.

I think the answer may be that 3D printing seems both futuristic and tangible enough that people can imagine the different things that can be done with it, even if they are not economically feasible or even scientifically plausible.

The Burke team did indeed reference 3D printing in both the HHMI and UIUC press releases. They did not make the claim that the Burke synthesizer was a 3D printer, but that did not stop the popular press from running with this incorrect analogy. Should we ignore the inevitable misunderstandings, or should we prevent them from happening in the first place? What words should evince caution before they are used by public information officers and principal investigators? "Cure" is one - I think I have a case that "3D printer" is another.  

14 comments:

  1. I bought a 3d printer as a way to connect with non-technical personnel, it's been fantastic. You can show management and potential investors an Orbitrap or a 600MHz NMR and they don't care, it's another beige box you can't see inside of. You show them a 3d printed glow in the dark trinket being made, and their jaws hit the floor over 2 cents of plastic when you put it in their hand. If you turn up the stepper motor voltages, you can get the buzzing and whirring a bit louder. Now that's innovation. One can further up the wow factor by using a 3d printer that looks unnecessarily futuristic, like the one linked in my name.

    (# of robotic arms) x (# of blue LEDs) x (the phone number of the cute sales girl) = your VC package

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  2. Maybe the author is confusing "3D-printer" with a Star Trek "Replicator" (R)?

    "Computer: Uranium-235, 15 kilograms, non-critical geometry"

    Perhaps we can mix shows too: Combine HAL-3000's actions with Majel Barrett's voice, "I'm sorry Lieutenant, I'm afraid I can't do that."

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    1. One of the weirder aspects of Majel Barrett's tenure on TNG was that, as well as being Luxwana Troi (sp?) and the voice of the computer, she was also the voice of the narration: "And now, for the conclusion". Always broke me out of concentration.

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  3. Barney is right. If I have control of subatomic particles, why would I 3D print uranium when I could literally be printing gold?

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    1. or Rhodium--I keep avoiding Rh-catalyzed reactions because that stuff is too expensive.

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  5. I wonder if a 3-D printer could replicate itself by printing new 3-D printers.

    I admit I'm not familiar with the technology of these things, but as you point out, the reports in the mainstream media usually sound wildly implausible.

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    1. Some printable 3D printers exist. You of course still have to buy things like the PCB electronics and motors but most of it is printable:
      http://reprap.org/

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  6. This reminds me of an article I saw here a year or 2 ago:
    http://chemjobber.blogspot.ch/2014/04/i-cannot-believe-this-was-published.html

    The author so flippantly mentions sub-atomic 3D printing its like we already have prototypes of this technology working, but the argument depends on Sub-atomic 3D printing, and scientists getting it to work soon.

    I also think that even if we had a sub-atomic 3D printer that could print us plutonium and uranium that it would be difficult to ever reach the amount needed for a weapon. Wikipedia suggests you can get away with out 10 kg of plutonium (~40 moles). I think people dont really understand the magnitude of Avogadro's constant when it comes to these situations. In relation to the drugprinter article above Seb Spain wrote a great analysis about the amount of time to hypothetically print a 350 Da molecule. At a rate of 1 molecule per nanosecond it would take about 54 million years to make a kg. So even if sub-atomic printers existed, you have to be making millions of atoms of plutonium per nanosecond in order for it to even be worth trying. Really goes to show why Political Science professors shouldn't be speculating about the future of science.

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    1. I meant to link this Seb Spain article in the previous post
      http://sebspain.co.uk/files/2014/04/21/drugprinter.pdf

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  7. So it's not possible to 3D-print Britney Spears.

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    1. I'm not thinking you should. Way too high maintenance.

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