Environmentalists and other green groups are extremely concerned that nanotechnology may unleash a slew of health, safety and environmental disasters. Scientists on the other hand are optimistic that nanotechnology holds the key to a range of new frontiers from cancer cures, to super fast computing and the clean up of environmental pollutants. This article presents the positive view promoting nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is the study of particles and materials smaller than a billionth of a metre in size. At such small sizes the materials develop unique properties that are not seen in normal or macro sized particles.
Any backlash against nanoparticles tends to fail to mention that nanoparticles exist naturally, and always have existed naturally. Carbon nanotubes and buckyballs, that some believe have the potential to cause widespread trauma to human tissue, can be found naturally in systems as simple as soot from a candle flame.
Nanoparticles Aren’t Always Nanoparticles
An emerging nanotechnology problem actually has nothing to do with nanotechnology. The nano prefix has become such a hot item that it is being applied liberally to all manner of products. Apple iPods through to washing powders use the term nano to increase their appeal. Problems with these mislabelled products can lead to tarnishing of true nanotechnology.
A pioneer in nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler, in his 1986 book “Engines of Creation” coined the phrase the “grey goo problem” to refer to a nanotech accident that results in nanomachines that "could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days." This doomsday scenario was brought to the wider public though Michael Crichton's novel Prey. The problem is that the scenario extraordinarily unlikely to occur.
Building components molecule by molecule may eventually be possible but this will occur inside a larger machine. The machine could produce replacement components for itself, but they would be isolated from the whole machine. For example, a robotic factory that builds cars could potentially be adapted to build robot arms – but it couldn’t produce the whole factory en masse.
Nanomachines could be made in a desktop nano-factory but in order for self replicating nanomachines to actually work they would need to overcome energy and thermodynamics problems governed by the laws of physics.
Cures Not Causes
Nanoparticles like buckyballs and carbon nanotubes have gained attention for the possibility that they could damage human tissue. Other research has coated these nanoparticles rendering them non-toxic and opening them up as carriers for drugs in fighting diseases that include cancer.
Safeguards and Regulations
While governments debate the regulation of nanomaterials, some companies are taking a strongly responsible line and applying asbestos handling practices to the handling of nanomaterials.
Comparing Nanotechnology With GMOs
Groups associated with claims against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are now looking to disrupt the ongoing development of nanotechnology. One group in particular, have called for a halt on all usage of nanoparticles either in the lab or commercially. This approach is unsound for two main reasons. Without nanoparticle research we will never know if they are safe or harmful. Or what is required to render them safe. In addition, unlike GMOs, nanoparticles can’t self replicate or be crossed with natural particles in order to populate in ‘the wild’.
Nanotechnology offers significant environmental benefits. Incorporating nanoparticles into other materials can result in changed properties that reduce material resource demands, increase thermal properties and energy efficiencies. Nanomaterials can also be used to remove pollutants from the environment. This includes atmospheric carbon that contributes to global warming.
Health based developments for nanotechnology include the development of innovative diagnostic and therapeutic processes, new drugs and drug delivery systems. Other medical uses for nanomaterials include biomedically inert implants and in vivio sensing applications.
Nanotechnology in Food Production
Nanotechnology is also being applied to food packaging to extend shelf life and protect against pathogens. Food production itself is also under the influence of nanotechnology with nanomaterials being used in agrichemicals for more efficient use of fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides.
Computing and Electronics
Nanotechnology holds the key to phenomenally fast quantum computers, high intensity low power lighting and other electronic advances. Importantly it could bring a revolution to the way semiconductors are made.
Although bunny suited workers in spotless clean rooms appear to be employed in a hygienic haven, the chemicals used in producing semiconductors and computer chips are exceptionally toxic. These chemicals have been linked to cancer and birth defects. Self assembly with nanotechnology would eliminate the use of these hazardous chemicals.