Nanotech will be Big

A nanometer is a one billionth of a meter. How small is that?  It is so small that a human hair is 100,000 nanometers thick, an average man is 1.7 billion nanometers tall, a strand of DNA is 2-3 nanometers & an atom is 1/10 of a nanometer. You can’t see a nanometer with your naked eye or even with the most powerful optical microscopes.  But we can see them with our electronic microscopes and we can now manipulate matter at the atomic level. This is nanotechnology, one of the most exciting industries of the future.  

I don’t understand the physics, but I am excited by the possibilities. What our expert told me today was that for most of our daily lives, the things we can see with our eyes, Newtonian physics works just fine.  But when things get very small, on the nano level, elements behave in different ways. A nano-particle is not the same as a molecule.  Molecules are stable. Nano-particles are not because they behave according to the rules of quantum physics.

It’s like alchemy. Our experts explained that nanotech cannot turn lead into gold, but it can make an element like lead behave like gold in certain circumstance. For example, gold can be used as a catalyst in some situations. At the nano level, a cheaper material such as copper can be made to perform like gold. This is way beyond my level of understanding, but it has to do with surface areas. The surface areas is the only part that really interacts. This is as far as my science goes. 

One of the interesting uses mentioned was to use nanotechnology to minimize the need for or even replace so-called rare-earth elements.  In recent years, the Chinese have cornered the market on many of these.  We don’t require vast quantities of materials, but they are crucial to the production of many high-tech products.  Nanotech will allow us, once again, to do an end run around a would-be monopolist.  

Nanotech is an enabling technology. For example, nanotechnology is already being used in medicine. A nano-particle can deliver medicine directly to cancer cells and kill them w/o affecting neighboring cells. Some nano-particles can be activated by infrared or magnetism. In that case, a nano-particle could be directed to a cancer cell and then activated to get hot and kill the cancers. These advances have developed only in the last five years.  

We are now familiar with the stain repelling, wrinkle free fabrics, even sox that won’t stink. These were developed using nanotechnology. We also have self-healing paints. For example, a car paint can cover its own scratches. The closest thing to a mass produced commodity product today are carbon nano tubes. They can be stronger than steel but at almost no weight.  

Nanotech can help with the environment, for example, turning seawater into drinking water with reverse osmosis or using nanotechnology in agriculture and food

Of course, nothing is free and with any advance comes risk. Nano-particles are so small that they can penetrate deep into your body.  They can breach the blood brain barrier, for example. This is great for delivery of medicines but not so good for potentially harmful substances.

R = E * H – i.e. risk equals exposure times hazard. This is how we need to assess risk.  A shark is very hazardous, but if you are not in the ocean and not exposed to it, there is no risk. On the other hand, constant exposure to a low level hazard can be much more dangerous. To most people, bees are a much bigger threat than sharks. Of course, exposure to some things is not hazardous at all.  

In traditional risk management, dosage or amount makes a big difference. In these cases, the difference between a deadly poison and a harmless substance or even a beneficial medicine is often the dosage, even something as deadly as arsenic in small enough quantities is harmless. With nanotech, we are just not sure if that useful rule applies. Researchers disagree. Another uncertainty is just in the production of nano-materials.  We still don’t understand all the processes so there is great variation from batch to batch, even when made by the same people ostensibly the same way. This is why regulating nanotech is a challenge.  

Nanotechnology has the potential to be a revolutionary process. It changes the very nature of matter that we work with. But we do have to evaluate risks versus benefits on individual basis and do so across the whole product lifecycle, i.e. from material to manufacturing to consumer use to final disposal.  

More information from CRS:

Nanotechnology and Environmental, Health, and Safety: Issues for Consideration

Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer