Nanotechnology: Benefits and Risks - News Item

Scientists and engineers believe nanotechnology can be used to benefit human health now and in the future through applications such as better filters for improving water purification, more effective methods of delivering drugs in medicine and new ways of repairing damaged tissues and organs, according to a report published today of a workshop held by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

However, some nanotechnology experts at the workshop, organised as part of the joint Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering study on nanotechnology, believed that more assessments need to be made of the potential risks to human health posed by nanotubes and other nanoparticles, which may have the potential to be hazardous in unpredictable ways. Further studies should be carried out of the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment.

Many participants at the workshop also thought that the construction of self-replicating ‘nanorobots’, which feature in some science fiction accounts of nanotechnology, is likely to be physically impossible.

The report also warns that participants felt “hyped up reports from some scientists or writers have only served to confuse the public’s perception of nanotechnology”. They wanted a public debate based on “a realistic projection of the potential impacts, both positive and negative, of nanotechnology.”

Professor Ann Dowling, who is chairing the working group for the study on nanotechnology, said: “This report outlines some of the ways in which nanoscience and nanotechnology may develop, and the potential applications. We are publishing the report so that the science and engineering community in the UK and abroad, and indeed everybody with an interest in this area, can comment and let the working group know their views. The working group wants to make sure that they gain the most informed view possible of future developments in nanotechnology.”

The report is based on a workshop involving 42 scientists and engineers drawn from a wide spectrum of disciplines in universities and industry. The participants discussed likely developments over the next 20 years in nanoengineering and measurement, nanomaterials, electronics and optoelectronics, and bionanotechnology. They also considered health, safety, environmental and social issues that might arise in these fields.

The report notes a wide range of current applications of nanotechnology and nanoscience outside medicine, ranging from the creation of ‘nanomuscles’ to make dolls that could react to sound by moving their eyes, to television screens that require less power and produce less heat.

Nanotechnology could also be potentially beneficial for the environment, according to the report, through the use of nanomaterials, for example, to create fuel cells and photovoltaic cells, or to remove heavy metals, cyanide and other substances that damage the environment. Overall nanotechnology could be used to develop industrial processes that make more efficient use of resources and generate less waste.

The report highlights some concerns that current regulations do not take into account the size of particles, which at the scale of the nanometre, or one-millionth of a millimetre, can have a significant effect on their properties. Although nanoparticles are already present in the air from a range of natural and man-made sources, further research is required into their safety.

The report indicates that some participants were critical of major corporations for “becoming less open to engaging the public, and indeed their own peers, in discussion about their nanotechnology research programs”. Workshop participants wanted more effort to be made in involving the public in debates about the commercial research and development of nanotechnology. There were also fears that the successful application of nanotechnology in the UK is being held up by the lack of a national strategy to guide its progress.

Posted 10th November 2003


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