Nanotechnology, the wave of the future?

Nanotechnology, the wave of the future?

Nanotechnology, the technology which deals with the manipulation of matter on the scale of the nanometre (one billionth of a metre), has been touted as a ‘trillion-dollar industry’. However, before attempting to jump onto this bandwagon, developing countries must sift through the hype surrounding the industry and consider potential hazards which may put the brakes on the future development of the industry.

By Mae-Wan Ho

THE US National Science Foundation, responsible for the public funding of basic research, held a workshop jointly with the Department of Commerce in December 2001, on ‘Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance’.

This was followed by the publication of a heroic 450-page report in June 2002, as a major push to combine nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and brain science for ‘accelerating the advancement of mental, physical and overall human performance’.

Nanotechnology, the report stated, will play the key role in the ‘integration and synergy’ of the four technologies (nano-bio-info-cogno), NBIC for short, because everything, all of life, originates from the nanoscale, the scale of molecules. It is the ultimate in reductionist, bottom-up approach to life, the universe and everything, starting from atoms and molecules.

It said that, as we now understand how atoms combine to form molecules, which in turn aggregate to form structures, and technology can harness natural processes to engineer new material, biological products and machines from the nanoscale up to the scale of metres, so ‘[t]he same principles will allow us to understand and when desirable to control the behaviour both of complex microsystems such as neurons and computer components and macrosystems such as human metabolism and transportation vehicles’.

In other words, the four corporate technologies are to team up, to dominate and intervene in every aspect of our daily life, from the workings of our brain and body, our genetic makeup to social organisation and national security. Nothing, but nothing is left out. Beginning with the ability ‘to control the genetics of humans, animals, and agricultural plants’, the list is endless, ranging from external devices and systems of food production, robots, tools, mobile and wearable artefacts, to ingestible medicines and food, implantable nanodevices, organs, sensors, new genes and new cells.

‘Examples of payoffs will include improving work efficiency and learning, enhancing individual sensory and cognitive capabilities, revolutionary changes in healthcare, improving both individual and group creativity, highly effective communication techniques including brain-to-brain interaction, perfecting human-machine interfaces including neuromorphic engineering, enhancing human capabilities for defence purposes, reaching sustainable development using NBIC tools, and ameliorating the physical and cognitive decline that is common to the aging mind.’

One speaker summed it up,
‘If the Cognitive Scientists can think it
the Nano people can build it
the Bio people can implement it, and
the IT people can monitor and control it.’

The report called for ‘new curricula, new concepts to provide intellectual coherence, and new forms of education institutions’. It recommended transformation of science, engineering and technology at their very roots.

In short, it promised to take me boldly almost everywhere I never wanted to go in the first place. This report was thinly disguised PR for the nanotechnology industry.

Mega-funding for nanotechnology

Clinton had announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000, a multi-agency programme to provide a big funding boost for nanotechnology. It received $442 million in the fiscal year that ended September 2001, a 56% jump from the year before. In 2002, another 23% increase was granted even while the Bush administration proposed cuts to funding for research and development programmes of most federal agencies. In other countries including Japan and South Korea, total funding for nanotechnology jumped from $316 million in 1997 to about $845 million in 2001.

Shortly after the NSF report was released, US government, industry and academic researchers came together to form a public-private consortium, the New Jersey Nanotechnology Laboratory, a facility based in Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs. ‘Nanotechnology backers see trillion-dollar industry’, according to North Jersey News (1 August 2002).

Of the quartet, the IT boom has come and gone, brain research has contributed little during ‘the decade of the brain’ (1990s) or subsequently, apart from endless debate on the nature of ‘consciousness’, and biotechnology is fast collapsing from technical and financial failures and worldwide rejection of its products; investments have dried up and there’s nothing new or useful in the pipelines.

Can nanotechnology really reverse the fortunes of the other three technologies or take off on its own, as seems more likely?

The most promising developments are in micro- and molecular electronics that could make computers run even faster than they do now. Just as the field of molecular electronics is getting ‘sizzling hot’ (see box), however, evidence is emerging that carbon nanotubes, on which much of the industry is based, are deadlier than asbestos (see ‘Nanotubes highly toxic’ in this issue).

Nanoparticles, it appears, can acquire unusual catalytic and other properties not exhibited by the same substances in solution or in macroscopic forms (see ‘Metal nanoshells, cure or curse?’in this issue). There is a serious gap in regulation that must be urgently addressed.

There will be arguments as to whether advances in quantum optics and quantum entanglement belong in nanotechnology, but they are making quantum cryptography, if not quantum computing nearly practicable. How useful that is for ordinary people is debatable.

The problem with the NSF report and other similar documents is that it made no attempt to distinguish between science and science fiction, between hype and reality, let alone the desirable and undesirable in terms of ethics, choice and safety. (See ‘Nanotechnology, a hard pill to swallow whole’ in this issue.)

Scientific American Special Issue Nanotech, September 2001,; Nanotechnology
Chemical and Engineering News, 16 December 2002, Vol. 80 (50), 46-47.

Dr Mae-Wan Ho, scientific adviser to the Third World Network, is co-founder and director of the Institute of Science in Society , a non-profit organisation that promotes critical public understanding of issues in science and technology, especially with regard to social accountability, ethical implications and sustainability.



Molecular electronics and carbon nanotubes

Miniaturisation has been a major trend in electronics since computers were invented, which means that approximately every two years, the number of components on a single chip doubles, and computers can run twice as fast. This is referred to as Moore’s law.

Microelectronics has now shrunk to ‘the threshold of the molecular scale’, which is the limit, and defines the scale of nanotechnology. ‘Atom by atom’ construction is now realisable with the inventions in the 1980s of the scanning tunnelling microscope and the atomic force microscope capable of creating images of individual atoms and moving them from place to place.

The IBM Zurich Research Laboratory has mounted the sharp, nanometre tips used in the atomic force microscopes onto more than 1,000 microscopic cantilevers on a microchip to make a ‘millipede’ device. The tips of this device can write digital bits onto a polymer sheet. This technique could lead to a data storage device that is 20 times or more the density of today’s best disc drives.

Two main approaches are used to make nanostructures. The top-down approach chisels out or adds bulk material to a surface. Microchips with circuit lines of little more than 100 nanometres are now available. The bottom-up approach depends on self-assembly of atoms and molecules, like liquid crystals, that make ordered arrangements spontaneously, given the right conditions.

Nanotubes – carbon cylinders with unusual electrical properties – are being developed as nanowires. Nanotubes are related to the carbon sphere called buckminster fullerene – because they resemble the geodesic dome invented by the architect polymath Buckminster Fuller – discovered by Robert Curl, Jr., Harry Kroto and Richard Smalley, all of whom received a Nobel prize. Many structures based on nanotubes are being envisioned, including minute gears. But most are theoretical paper models only.

Nevertheless single-wall carbon nanotubes have found many applications. They are about 1 nm (a billionth of a metre) in diameter and several microns (millionths of metres) long, but often pack tightly together to form rods or ropes. They possess unique electrical (excellent electrical conductors), mechanical (10 times stronger than steel and a fraction of the weight) and thermal properties (little or no expansion on heating) and have, therefore, many potential applications in electronics, computer, aerospace and defence industries.

Field-effect transistors (FETs) and various types of sensors and detectors have been made from carbon nanowires, as have light-emitting diodes (LEDs); and logic circuits have been constructed from microscopic FETs. Three groups – based in Harvard University, Boston USA, UC Berkeley, California USA, and Lund University, Sweden – successfully made nanowires with segments of different chemical composition, which can serve as multiple junctions within an individual nanowire. This makes it possible to construct complex electronic devices on a nanoscale.

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