Origins

Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. This covers both current work and concepts that are more advanced.

K. Eric Drexler popularised the word 'nanotechnology' in the 1980's. He was talking about building machines on the scale of molecules, a few nanometers wide—motors, robot arms, and even whole computers, far smaller than a cell. Drexler spent the next ten years describing and analyzing these incredible devices, and responding to accusations of science fiction. Meanwhile, mundane technology was developing the ability to build simple structures on a molecular scale. As nanotechnology became an accepted concept, the meaning of the word shifted to encompass the simpler kinds of nanometer-scale technology.

In its original sense, ’nanotechnology’ refers to the projected ability to construct items from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, high performance products.

This theoretical capability was envisioned as early as 1959 by the renowned physicist Richard Feynman.

I want to build a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously. . . The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big. — Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in physics

Based on Feynman's vision of miniature factories using nanomachines to build complex products, advanced nanotechnology (sometimes referred to as molecular manufacturing) will make use of positionally-controlled mechanochemistry guided by molecular machine systems. Formulating a roadmap for development of this kind of nanotechnology is now an objective of a broadly based technology roadmap project led by Battelle (the manager of several U.S. National Laboratories) and the Foresight Nanotech Institute.

The huge public and private investments in nanotechnology over the last decade reflect enormous scientific enthusiasm over this emerging research area. Nanotechnology holds promise in fields as diverse as materials engineering, medicine, information technology, environmental solution, energy production, and agricultural technology. Alongside the promises hover a range of social and ethical concerns. These include questions of toxicity, privacy, economic injustice, terrorism, military implications, and compromised environmental integrity.1

Shortly after this envisioned molecular machinery is created, it will result in a manufacturing revolution, probably causing severe disruption. It also has serious economic, social, environmental, and military implications.

Four Generations

Mihail (Mike) Roco of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative has described four generations of nanotechnology development . The current era, as Roco depicts it, is that of passive nanostructures, materials designed to perform one task. The second phase, which we are just entering, introduces active nanostructures for multitasking; for example, actuators, drug delivery devices, and sensors. The third generation is expected to begin emerging around 2010 and will feature nanosystems with thousands of interacting components. A few years after that, the first integrated nanosystems, functioning (according to Roco) much like a mammalian cell with hierarchical systems within systems, are expected to be developed.

Conflicting Definitions

Unfortunately, conflicting definitions of nanotechnology and blurry distinctions between significantly different fields have complicated the effort to understand the differences and develop sensible, effective policy.

The risks of today's nanoscale technologies (nanoparticle toxicity, etc.) cannot be treated the same as the risks of longer-term molecular manufacturing (economic disruption, unstable arms race, etc.). It is a mistake to put them together in one basket for policy consideration—each is important to address, but they offer different problems and will require different solutions. As used today, the term nanotechnology usually refers to a broad collection of mostly disconnected fields. Essentially, anything sufficiently small and interesting can be called nanotechnology. Much of it is harmless. For the rest, much of the harm is of familiar and limited quality. But as we will see, molecular manufacturing will bring unfamiliar risks and new classes of problems.

General-Purpose Technology

Nanotechnology is sometimes referred to as a general-purpose technology. That's because in its advanced form it will have significant impact on almost all industries and all areas of society. It will offer better built, longer lasting, cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation, for agriculture, and for industry in general.

Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread. Or a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Or materials much lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength. — U.S. National Science Foundation. 2

Dual-Use Technology

Like electricity or computers before it, nanotech will offer greatly improved efficiency in almost every facet of life. But as a general-purpose technology, it will be dual-use, meaning it will have many commercial uses and it also will have many military uses—making far more powerful weapons and tools of surveillance. Thus it represents not only wonderful benefits for humanity, but also grave risks.

A key understanding of nanotechnology is that it offers not just better products, but a vastly improved manufacturing process. A computer can make copies of data files—essentially as many copies as you want at little or no cost. It may be only a matter of time until the building of products becomes as cheap as the copying of files. That's the real meaning of nanotechnology, and why it is sometimes seen as "the next industrial revolution."
The power of nanotechnology can be encapsulated in an apparently simple device called a personal nanofactory that may sit on your countertop or desktop. Packed with miniature chemical processors, computing, and robotics, it will produce a wide-range of items quickly, cleanly, and inexpensively, building products directly from blueprints.
Present nanotechnology applications

Nanomaterials are now used for self-cleaning windows, fabrics and anti-graffiti paint. Carbon nanotubes are reportedly used in the Nissan X-Trail car to strengthen its bumper.

Researchers at Edinburgh University have moved a tiny droplet of water using light-sensitive molecules, which could lead to applications for "lab on a chip" technologies, while at Stanford University, researchers have used heated carbon nanotubes to kill cancer cells. The US firm EndoBionics has developed a micron-scale MicroSyringe for injecting drugs into the heart, while at the nano scale, AcryMed's SilvaGard protects medical implements from bacteria.

Nanotechnology is already used in fuel enhancers. The UK transportation firm Stagecoach is currently using Oxonica's Environ, a nanotechnology catalyst that helps to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency.

Future applications and possibilities

Materials will gain new properties, including colour-changing abilities. Antibacterial surfaces will become more common (Motorola hopes to build phones with these surfaces in 2-3 years). Stronger, lighter materials could change everything from architecture to transport. The US company LiftPort hopes to launch a "space elevator" by 2018 using ribbon made of carbon nanotube composites, to ferry satellites 62,000 miles into space.

Expect computer-storage densities to increase. Hewlett-Packard Laboratories is working on electronic switches nanometres thick. This could lead to computers with memories thousands of times greater. HP Labs predicts the emergence of "smart objects'' with built-in computers, including clothing.

Companies including QinetiQ are developing an antiviral nanomaterial for masks that could protect people against bird flu. Another promising area is targeted medicine delivery, whereby an infected site is magnetised so that magnetic nanoparticles will only attach to that tissue.

Nanotechnology could make water purification easier and cheaper, thanks to nano-engineered filters. With even worse water shortages on the horizon, desalination could be a significant application in decades.

Batteries could be made more efficient due to the use of nanotechnology-based separator plates that will be able to hold more energy than conventional ones and significantly increase power density. Fuel cells could also be made smaller and more efficient. A 2004 report from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering predicted the distribution of power production closer to the point of use, which could have significant effects on energy policy.

Iron nanoparticles could be used on land for breaking down organic chemicals in the environment and thus ridding it of some pollutants. However, some experts are concerned about releasing them into the environment without sufficient research on their broader effects.

Work to build robots at nano level is still rudimentary. If it came to fruition, we might realise Richard Feynman's vision of molecular manufacturing - creating substances by building them out of atoms. In such a scenario, you could take an old car tyre, put it in your nanotech converter, press the button, and turn it into a hamburger, but this, if feasible, is decades away.

Some experts predict the use of nano-sized robots that will travel in the bloodstream, cleaning arteries and administering drugs and repairs. Smart nanotechnology-based sensors could be placed ubiquitously into the environment, measuring a plethora of environmental conditions, reporting back on temperature and vibration, and watching out for chemical or biological content.3

Nanotechnology and environmental solutions
In the United States, activities related to energy include (key agencies in brackets):
• Energetic materials for propulsion, explosives (DOD)
• Catalysis, fuel cells, hydrogen (DOE)
• Advanced power systems (IA)
• Energy conversion and storage for space (NASA)
• Materials science and engineering (NSF)
• Manufacturing processes and equipment (NIST)
• Biomass conversion, hydrogen production, distributed power (USDA)
American nanotechnology companies are working on catalysts and photovoltaics. Nano-stellar is developing highly-efficient platinum nano-composite catalysts for car emission control, fuel cells and chemical industry applications. The next-generation technology will finally make solar power competitive. The new photovoltaics use tiny solar cells embedded in thin sheets of plastic to create an energy-producing material that is cheap, efficient, and versatile.
In Australia, Sustainable Technologies International achieved the first commercial installation of dye-sensitised solar panels. The high efficiency was achieved via nano-sized powders used in the electrodes of the panel. The powders are lightly sintered to form a nano-network which is used as the charge collector. Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited is exploring nanotechnology in solid oxide fuel cells for application in the anode, cathode and electrolyte materials. This allows increased manufacturing control and higher surface areas that would enable higher power production.
There are opportunities to capture the benefits of nanotechnology in energy through:
- Reduced reliance on fossil fuels and increased use of renewables, in particular solar energy and hydrogen
- Development of solutions, e.g. distributed energy storage and production
- Growth of companies to manufacture components, catalysts and cells, based on new technologies
- Integration with specialist manufacturing industries, in particular car and medical.

Nanotechnology, potential benefits and dangers

It is a revolutionary, transformative, powerful, and potentially very dangerous - or beneficial - technology. Possible developments could include furniture that could think, cars that could change colour, and even mobile phones with breathalysers.

It's not too early to begin asking some tough questions facing the issues:

- Who will own the technology?
- Will it be heavily restricted, or widely available?
- What will it do to the gap between rich and poor?
- How can dangerous weapons be controlled, and perilous arms races be prevented?

We cannot say with certainty that full-scale nanotechnology will not be developed with the next ten years, or even five years. It may take longer than that, but prudence—and possibly our survival—demands that we prepare now for the earliest plausible development scenario.4

Nanotechnology - the frontier technology that enables atomic scale construction, rearrangement and design of materials - has quickened the debate over global regulation of new technologies in the twenty-first century. Governments in the industrialised world recognise the 'transformative' potential of nanotechnologies and have reacted by channelling billions into national research programmes - without creating the regulatory institutions to monitor the health, social or environmental impacts.

NGOs such as Greenpeace and the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) have advocated a moratorium on the commercial production of new nano-materials and a 'transparent global process for evaluating the social, health and environmental implications of the new technology'. One specific proposal is the formation of an International Commission for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT). An ICENT would give governments a way to gauge the scientific, social and economic effects of all emerging technologies, the ETC Group argues. The concept of an ICENT has been taken up and supported by the European Parliament's Committee on Development and Cooperation, which considers that 'new technologies should also be assessed for their impact on sustainable development' via such a mechanism.

However, social movements need to become powerful enough to challenge the decisions of technocrats and to institutionalise the principles of accountability briefly described in this document. The success of such initiatives will determine the extent to which conventions such as ICENT lead to long-term improvements in how new technologies impact on people's lives.5

The new technologies of the 21st century are going to continue to proliferate and to cause disruptive innovation, with their attendant challenges. Expect more opposition to genetically modified food and a push towards organic food and fair trade products in super markets. Nanotechnology based devices and materials are going to be even more ubiquitous from personal entertainment devices to "special properties" clothes that perform better than cotton, silk, wool or any of the traditional natural fibres in surpassing their key benefits. Robots are going to make their foray into domestic automated appliances and also at some airport lounges and traffic monitoring. Smarter mobile telephones, PDAs and computers that can anticipate your next logical requirement will become common place and fulfil multiple functions. The need for a high quality camera, dictaphone, mobile telephone, music player, video player, photographs viewer, child monitor, translator is going to be increasingly integrated into the same device.

Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. The properties of manufactured products depend on how those atoms are arranged. Whereas nanotechnology is set to change our lives, nanotechnology and nanoethics are also a contentious field : if future nanotechnology will be part of our everyday lives and will offer great potential for benefit to humankind, it also brings severe dangers.

Notes

1. http://www2.umt.edu/ethics/debating_science/nanotech.html
2. http://www.nsf.gov/
3. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/science_technology/article571336.ece
4. http://www.viewsfromtheworld.com/article0031.htm
5. http://practicalaction.org/?id=democratising_technology_4