By Knut H. Nylænde
Ten years back scientists, politicians and media frequently presented to us the “bright future” of nanotechnology, with a variety of applications – in materials, medicine, food, clothing, et cetera. Typical was this presentation by BBC News Online Science and Technology Staff in July 2004 which I found on BBC’s web site:
1 – Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) for displays
2 – Photovoltaic film that converts light into electricity
3 – Scratch-proof coated windows that clean themselves with UV
4 – Fabrics coated to resist stains and control temperature
5 – Intelligent clothing measures pulse and respiration
6 – Bucky-tubeframe is light but very strong
7 – Hipjoint made from biocompatible materials
8 – Nano-particle paint to prevent corrosion
9 – Thermo-chromic glass to regulate light
10 – Magnetic layers for compact data memory
11 – Carbon nanotube fuel cells to power electronics and vehicles
12 – Nano-engineered cochlear implant
Similar presentations of the blessings of nanotechnology are harder to find today. There are more critical comments and warnings, even by governments. The UK government recently responded to a report into nanotechnology with another review. The optimistic phrases ten years back are replaced with wordings like “toxic warnings for nano industry,” “tighter control needed for ‘tiny science,’” “nanotech under the microscope.” And in UK media we can find headlines like “Prince Charles warns of science risks,” “nano science lost on UK public,” “Sainsbury cools nano-nonsense,” “nano particles threaten brain,” et cetera.
I was surprised also when looking up some of the web sites of UK organizations that covered this area with some intensity ten years back, like Institute of Nanotechnology, University of Cambridge Nanoscale Science Laboratory, Royal Academy of Engineering and Bionanotechnology Centre Oxford University. Research is still going on, by all means, but the scope and content of it seem to have changed and reports and books related to nanotechnology are fewer.
Professor John Ryan at Oxford University says that although nano-devices can be built atom by atom, it is not realistic – like many envisaged ten years back – as a manufacturing option because it is slow and expensive. One of the major scientific challenges has been to understand the fundamental biological principles and apply them to produce new types of nanotechnology, he says. Armed with these design rules it is possible to make new types of nano-devices using materials that are more robust than bio-materials.
Professor Ryan points out that the many science fiction scenarios that were presented some ten years back have not only diverted attention away from the real advantages of nanotechnology, but also from issues that do give reason for concern. The one fantastical idea that has dogged nanotechnology is the self-replicating machine.The scenario sees swarms of self-replicating robots, smaller than viruses, multiplying uncontrollably and devouring Earth.
Eric Drexler, who many consider to be a “father of nanotechnology,” has distanced himself from the idea, saying such self-replicating nano-machines are unlikely to be made. Similarly, the concern that self-replicating, nano-sized biological particles will move into human bodies and do unpredictable things, should be considered scaremongering.
Inhaled nano-particles found in the bloodstream which have dispersed throughout the brain is a concern, says Professor Mark Welland at the University of Cambridge. Whether this poses a health risk is not known. If you look around at the moment in a big city, a significant proportion of material that you breathe in is already particulates – and a proportion of that is nano-sized, like diesel emissions, he says.
Nanotechnology is not a technology in its own right, explains Professor Welland, it is an enabling technology, so it will appear in many different products. We see it already appearing in flash memory, computer chips, batteries, coatings and increasingly many new types of sensors, especially in the medical area.
The approach to implementing new products based on nanotechnology has become far more sober and is taking place within frameworks of law and regulations, not least with strict ethical guidance built into them. I think we should welcome this slow-down and appreciate the fact that future products based on nanotechnology will combine innovative solutions with safer products.
By Knut Harald Nylænde is a Norwegian investor who for the last 15 years has been an active investor in Scandinavian companies with international potential based on new research and inventions.