Atoms are the building blocks for all matter in our universe. Everything around us is made of atoms. For instance, our bodies are assembled in a specific manner from millions of living cells. Cells are nature's nanomachines. The goal of nanotechnology is to manipulate atoms individually and place them in a pattern to produce a desired structure. Many scientists believe that we are only a few decades away from perfecting nanotechnology.
“Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread. Imagine a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Imagine materials much lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength.” - U.S. National Science Foundation.
The new materials made through nanotechnology are finding their way into dozens of everyday products, from toothpaste to trousers, often without gaining the notice of regulators or consumers. Laws fall short in safeguarding the public’s health and safety when it comes to the blossoming science of nanotechnology.
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is an evolutionary science combining engineering and chemistry for manipulating materials at the atomic and molecular level to develop new or enhanced materials and products. The term covers many areas of research dealing with objects that are measured in a billionth of a meter or nanometers (or ten to the power minus nine). Nanotechnology involves the study of molecular and atomic particles, and manufacturing nanoscale materials and devices.
Using techniques and tools that are being developed today, individual atoms and molecules can be placed in any desired configuration with great precision. Any chemical structure that is not disallowed by the laws of physics can be built/rebuilt with nanotechnology. With nanotechnology scientists are producing materials with the exact properties they desire and are generally smaller, stronger and lighter than those produced with current technologies. Nanotechnology is likely to deliver an unprecedented material abundance for everyone; limitless energy; ecological sustainability; improved human health and performance; and smarter, cheaper, more efficient materials and products. It will result in a manufacturing revolution, and also has fundamental economic, social, environmental, and military implications.
Nanotechnology is anywhere from five to 15 years in the future, and we won't see dramatic changes in our world right away. Nanotechnology applications may provide some environmental benefits in comparison with existing techniques and products. Products containing nanoparticles have already been commercialized, including sunscreens, cosmetics, car parts and silicon chips. In the future we can expect them to be used also in food and pharmaceuticals. The potential effects of nanotechnology are enormous.
An estimated 700 types of nanomaterials are being manufactured at about 800 facilities in the USA alone, prompting several federal agencies to focus seriously on nano safety. Nanomaterials already are being used in at least 80 consumer products made by U.S. companies, according to Small Times Magazine, which covers the nanotechnology industry. Yet no agency has developed safety rules specific to nanomaterials.
Potential Benefits of Nanotechnology
- Create a new industrial revolution.
- Medical industry benefits includes nanomedicine (or nanorobots) programmed to attack and reconstruct the molecular structure of cancer and viruses; slow or reverse the aging process and increase life expectancy significantly; perform delicate surgeries, and other physical feature you wish to alter.
- The products made from nanomachines will be stronger fibers,
- Replicate anything, including diamonds, water and food.
- Create a new generation of computers, components and storage devices capable of storing trillions of bytes of information in a structure the size of a sugar cube.
- Nanorobots could be programmed to rebuild the thinning ozone layer, automatically remove contaminants from water sources, and oil spills could be cleaned up instantly.
- The development of a new generation of weapons, such as ways of encapsulating and delivering biochemical weapons, may already be under way.
Potential Negative Affects of Nanotechnology
There is another aspect of nanotechnology we are beginning to hear more about. The term "nanopollution" has been introduced into our ecological vocabulary, and no one knows the full implications of what that means.
- The very size of nanoparticles and the new properties they exhibit are also the source of possible human health and environmental hazards. Scientific experts acknowledge that these tiny particles can be inhaled, may be able to pass through the skin, the lungs, into the bloodstream, or penetrate cell walls.
- Greater miniaturization due to nanotechnology has also prompted suspicions about the use of surveillance equipment and increased loss of privacy.
- The ethical implications of nanotechnology include the perception that, since it involves change at the molecular level, it could be seen as "manipulating the building blocks of nature" leading to concerns about whether scientists are trying to "play God."
- Greater reactivity and toxicity, the release and accumulation of nanoparticles into the environment also raises concerns about their effect on other living organisms and ecological processes. The release of nanorobots and nano-engineered organisms in the more distant future may create even more frightful scenarios.
- Very little testing of any kind has been done on the nanoparticles that have already been commercialized, and there are no regulations anywhere in the world dealing specifically with nanotechnology and nanoscale materials and products.
Some civil society groups, such as the Canadian-based ETC Group, are calling for a moratorium on the development and release of nanoparticles until they are tested and proven safe, and a comprehensive regulatory regime for this technology is in place. The Royal Academy of Engineering has also issued a new warning about the potential hazardous nature of nanotechnology. Their report described how the manufacture of nanoparticles could threaten human health.
It is clear more research needs to be conducted to ensure public safety. At the core of the coming debate will be the question of who controls nanotechnology, who benefits from it, how it will be regulated and applied, and who takes the risks.
The promises of nanotechnology are huge and sound unbelievable. Researchers say that we will achieve these capabilities within the next century. In fact, nanotechnology might be the human race's greatest scientific achievement yet, completely changing every aspect of the way we live. It’s going to be one of the biggest frontier economic areas in the coming decades.
Nanotechnology is already being commercialized, most notably in the area of clean energy technologies. While the most far-reaching implications of the phenomenon are still unknown, it has the potential to ease fuel shortages and environmental threats. It could lead to a range of materials with novel properties; to new drug delivery systems and smaller computers. The full potential has only just started to be explored by researchers, and the push to advance nanotechnology is very strong.
Amid growing evidence that some of the tiniest materials ever engineered pose potentially big environmental, health and safety risks, momentum is building in Congress, environmental circles and in the industry itself to beef up federal oversight of these new materials, which are already showing up in consumer products. Nanomaterials are already being integrated into a wide range of products, including sports equipment, computers, food wrappings, stain-resistant fabrics and an array of cosmetics and sunscreens. These nanomaterials are generally less than 100 nanometers in diameter. Preliminary studies suggest that most of these products do not pose significant risks in their bulk form, or when embedded in the kinds of products that so far use them.
Jack Uldrich, president of NanoVeritas Group, told people at Basin Electric Cooperative’s annual meeting that nanotechnology will someday change the energy industry, enhance electrical transmission through power lines and help advance renewable energy. Uldrich says his stain-resistant pants are just the beginning for a technology that could someday be used to create cell phones so small they can be sewn into clothes.
The coming ability to build materials and products with atomic precision, and systems to aid knowledge exchange must involve critical discussion, thus improving public and private policy decisions. We must start discussing changing laws to protect the public from any risks that may develop in the future.
The promises of nanotechnology sound great. We are still in the dawn of the age of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is likely to change the way almost everything, including medicine, computers and cars, are designed and manufactured. Theories and techniques continue to emerge -- captivating scientists, students, entrepreneurs, investors, and even the U.S. government, which is betting that nanotechnology could lead to the next industrial and scientific revolution.
- External Review Draft Nanotechnology - White Paper
- Nanotechnology's everywhere at USATODAY.com - Wed, Jun 01, 2005
- Nanotech Sector Needs Sturdy Business Models at Small Times - Thu, Jan 13, 2005
- Beware the next scientific frontier at Sydney Morning Herald - Tue, Jan 04, 2005
"The views and opinions expressed herein are those solely of the writer and are not intended to represent those of the United States Department of Agriculture."