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Nanotechnology and the Rebirth of Alchemy

Issue: 26 Section: Environment Geography: Canada Topics: food security, technology

February 21, 2005

Nanotechnology and the Rebirth of Alchemy

Are converging technologies laying a golden egg?

by Yuill Herbert

This February, the smallest test tube in the world was manufactured by scientists at Nanotech.org, a joint venture between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and Hitachi Europe Ltd. The test tube is so small that around 300 billion of them would fit into one of the periods (.) on this page.

In January of this year, researchers at the University of Toronto reported that they had combined quantum dots with a polyment to create a new type of solar panel five times more efficient than current technology.

nanotech-w.jpg
A computer generated illustration of the 'pea pod' system, a nanotube is filled with fullerenes. Photo: Nanotech.org
In Thailand, scientists at Chiang Mai University's nuclear physics laboratory have rearranged the DNA of rice by drilling a nano-sized hole through the rice cell's wall and membrane and inserting a nitrogen atom, changing the colour of the grain from purple to green.

Kraft, Nestle, Unilever and others are employing nanotech to change the structure of food. Kraft is creating "interactive" drinks, for example, that can change colour and flavour.

Even in an era of radical technological change, it sounds like science fiction. But this type of research is typical in a field that is working at a scale so small that the laws of physics and chemistry governing everyday life no longer apply.

IN BOX:
Nanotechnologies either on the market or soon to be on the market:
  • stain-resistant fabrics for clothing and bedding
  • cosmetics and sunscreens
  • tennis balls and racquets
  • bowling balls
  • odor-eating socks
  • time-release perfumed fabrics
  • paints
  • capsules carrying hemoglobin (under development)
  • sensors to test water impurities
  • spray-able vitamins
  • nanoparticle water purifiers
  • ski wax
  • Humvee turrets
  • longlasting paper
  • nanotubes for flat panel display screens
  • artificial silicon retinas
  • several drug delivery systems
  • flash memory devices
  • diagnostic agents for use in MRI scans
Two years ago, the ETC Group, an Ottawa-based think tank that monitors technological developments, called for a moratorium on nanotechnology research. Their justification: research and commercialisation of nanotechnology is happening below the radar screen of regulatory agencies, limiting society's ability to assess risks and regulate dangerous uses.

Two years later, the call for a moratorium still stands. In a telephone interview, ETC Executive Director Pat Mooney said "Today, there are more reasons to be concerned, as there are now [nanotech] food products and pesticides on the market".

A number of recent studies point to possible health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology. Guenter Oberdoerster, an environmental toxicologist from the University of Rochester, reported in Inhalation Toxicology (2004) that inhaled nanoparticles accumulate in the nasal passages, lungs, and brains of rats. In Toxicological Sciences (2004), NASA scientist Chiu-Wing Lam reported that a suspension of carbon nanotubes (one of the most widely used nanoparticles) placed directly into mouse lungs caused unusual lesions that can interfere with oxygen absorption.

The first study of the impacts of nanoparticles on a species in their natural habitat was conducted by Eva Oberdorster in 2004 and the results were published in the Environmental Health Review. Largemouth bass suffered oxidative damage to their brains and water clarity increased, possibly indicating that bacteria were being killed.

The UK government commissioned the Royal Society to investigate the ecological and health risks associated with this new technology and the resulting report, released in the middle of 2004, was strikingly cautious. "Until more is known about environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, we recommend that the release of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes into the environment be avoided as far as possible."

According to Mooney, "The report shocked the Americans that the British were expressing so much concern. They were taken off guard. Industry was caught with its pants down. They are embarrassed that there are more than 400 products in the market place that are not regulated.".

Sean Murdock, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, a nanotechnology trade association, is quoted in the Environmental Health Review, "The risks are there, they're real, but they're manageable," he says. "And on balance, with the right processes in place, we're going to be able to deal with all of those risks, we're going to mitigate those risks, and we're going to realize the upside of the potential."

There is now a flurry of discussion in industrialised countries about regulation. In Canada, the issue is being considered by an interdepartmental committee. Canada has also placed it on the agenda for the upcoming Edinburgh G8 meeting to initiate international discussions.

Nanotechnology is unusual in its scope; its interdisciplinary nature spans the physical, biological and engineering sciences and leaves no major research area untouched. On agriculture alone, its potential impact is overwhelming, according to a report published by the ETC Group last fall. Hope Shand, ETC Group's Research Director said, "Over the next two decades, technologies converging at the nano-scale will have a greater impact on farmers and food than farm mechanisation or the Green Revolution."

In Canada there are active nanotechnology clusters of approximately fifty firms in Edmonton, Montreal and Vancouver. In 2001, the Canadian and Albertan governments and the University of Alberta jointly announced the creation of the National Institute for Nanotechnology, a $120 million investment over five years.

Global Investment in nanotechnology research and development has increased approximately seven-fold in the last six years from $432 million in 1997 to $3 billion in 2003 with at least thirty countries initiating publicly funded activities. If private investment was included, this total would reach $8.6 billion by 2004, according to US analysts at Lux Research.

The issue goes beyond nanotechnology to the convergence of a range of technologies. ETC writes "the US government refers to convergence as the integration of Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science (NBIC) and envisions that the mastery of the nano-scale domain will ultimately amount to the mastery of all of nature. At the molecular level, in the NBIC worldview, there exists a "material unity" so that all matter--life and non-life--is indistinguishable and can be seamlessly integrated. The goal of NBIC is to 'improve human performance,' both physically and cognitively (e.g., on the battlefield, on the wheat field, on the job)"

Nanotechnology challenges society with fundamental ethical issues, according to Pat Mooney, "What is life and who is human? ...bio-nanotechnology raises questions around biodiversity and what constitutes living material that have to be addressed right now".

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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