Nanotechnology: The Genie Is Out Of The Bottle

EVERY few years, a new hype fuels another stock market explosion. If it was microelectronics, the Internet and biotechnology earlier, it is now the turn of nanotechnology. And along with the hype, as it inevitably happens, we have the naysayers who point out the unproven nature of the technology and its possible disastrous consequences. Nanotechnlogy is no exception. The investment gurus, unemployed after the dotcom balloon burst, are again seeking to revive the greed machine and the moribund tech stock market by singing hallelujah to nanotechnology. Forget yesterday’s collapse of the tech stocks, nano is the new king and will give you returns beyond your wildest dreams; be a millionaire in your mid-twenties and then retire; the dotcom dream is back in a new package. Along with, it we have the fear of nanotechnology turning rogue and converting the whole world to a uniform grey goo and eliminating all life. It is not just a few loonies and fringe groups, the grey goo fear was first propounded by Bill Joy the co-founder of Sun Microsystems about the possibility of nana sized robots (or nanobots) taking over the world.


Nano is 10-9 and a nanometre is a billionth of a metre. Nanoscience refers to study of small objects whose dimensions are of the order of ten to hundred nanometres (10-9 metres): a nanometre is equal to 10 hydrogen atoms lined up in a row; a white blood cell is huge by comparison: it is 10,000 nanometres in diameter. We would reach 1 millimetre if we lined up 100 such white blood cells. In human dimensions, one nanometre is 75,000 times smaller than the width of a hair.








Nano technology is the use of either materials or construction of atomic scale machines for specific purposes.



While atomic scale machines are still far away, the use of nano sized particles or nano tubes are already seeing many applications. They have entered sunscreens, tennis balls and rackets, stain proof textiles, and even as coatings for sinks and toilets. The next few years are likely to see an explosion of new materials entering various consumer products as designers use the novel properties of nano sized particles.



The first nanomaterial discovered was in 1985 when researchers led Richard Samlley at Rice University found that 60 carbon atoms could arrange themselves symmetrically in the shape of a stitched soccer ball one nanometre across. This was dubbed as “fullerenes” after geodesic domes designed by Buckminster Fuller. They are also called as buckyballs. The buckyballs have some remarkable properties, they were much stronger than steel and could conduct electricity and heat. Somio Iijima later discovered the elongated version of the fullerenes – carbon nanotubes that were 100 times stronger than steel while being 1/6 its weight.



Why do nanomaterials have new properties than their macro-sized relatives? This is due to the quantum phenomena that appear as the particles shrink to atomic scale size. At the macro level, we see the laws of classical physics; below 100 nanometres, properties based on quantum physics become visible. It is in this intersection of the classical and quantum that the nanomaterials lie. We use additional properties based on quantum physics to deliver affects that are visible at the macro level.



It is the new properties of nano sized particles or tubes that offer possibilities in their use ranging from consumer products to drug delivery. Buckyballs can be used as free-radical scavengers; they can hold another atom within their core. A Toronto based company is devising a series of drugs to exploit these properties. It is, for instance, investigating the fullerene’s efficacy as an antioxidant against neuro-degenerative disorders such as Parkinson and Alzheimer diseases. Most candidates for drugs have poor water solubility. If they are shrunk to nano levels, they change with higher solubility. Shrinking them can therefore increase the range of drugs and their effectiveness.



The new nanomaterials also offer other properties that can lead to zapping tumours, zeroing on to specific locations in the body and so on. For instance it is possible to have a novel drugs based on yet another nanomaterial: three-dimensional branching structures, called dendrimers, which can be designed as “smart devices”. These structures would have one branch identifying a cancerous cell, a second branch containing an imaging agent, and a third bearing a toxin to kill the cell. “That combination creates a ‘smart bomb’,” explains Robert Paull, co-author of The Nanotech Report 2003, “that can be programmed to a specific type of cancer cell.”



Lux Capital a venture capital firm produced The Nanotech Report 2003 meant for investment firms. The Report brings out the huge investments that are slated for nanotechnology, particularly for new materials and in pharmaceuticals. Over 700 companies already involved in nanotechnology with 3 billion dollars proposed to be invested in 2003 worldwide. The US government funding is of the order of $2 billion since 2000 with Europe and Japan at $1 billion and $750 million respectively. Obviously the nanotech race is hotting up. Interestingly, Asian companies are particularly active in nanotechnology. Samsung followed IBM in having the largest number of nano patents. While the market for nanotechnology products is still less than a 100 million dollar, if the National Science Foundation of US is to be believed, it is set to touch $1 trillion by 2015.



The basic concern of using nanoparticles in various applications is that whether the properties of such material change if they are made smaller. And here the proponents of nanotechnology are trying to claim both. On one hand, they argue that nano has wonderful new properties that can be patented and used in a variety of applications, and on the other they argue that as the material is known to be non-toxic, therefore there is no need to put in a new set of procedures for testing such nanomaterials again. The problem is that if the new nanoparticles have wonderful new properties that make them useful, why should not they also have harmful new properties?



A case in point is the new sunscreen. Traditionally, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is used in sunscreen. As macroparticle, zinc oxide or  titanium dioxide looks white. That is why cricketers earlier had white painted faces. Now, the new sunscreen contains nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, which is transparent. Therefore the unsightly white paint has been replaced by sunscreen that looks like vanishing cream. The question is whether the new nano sized particles of titanium dioxide are chemically same as the macro particles with the solitary exception of being transparent? For the industry, if nanoparticles have to be tested again and new approvals taken from the regulatory authorities, it means millions of dollars in expenditure. Therefore, they argue that there is no need to test nanomaterials again as new materials.



The fear is not an idle one. Dr. Vyvyan Howard of the Developmental Toxico-Pathology unit of the University of Liverpool (UK), in a new ETC report says, “Research is now showing that when normally harmless bulk materials are made into ultrafine particles [nanoparticles] they tend to become toxic. Generally, the smaller the particles, the more reactive and toxic their effect.” Other researchers have found carbon nanotubes to be highly toxic while others report no such toxicity. Again, cell damage has been found with the use of some of the nanomaterials, which could pose long-term problems as possible carcinogens.



Leading scientists are arraigned on both sides, with the unfortunate spectacle of a number of scientists who are commercially involved through their own companies or their patents arguing for no new regulations. Both Drexler and V. Colvin, who are pioneers in nanotechnology, are in favour of nano technology research and use, have advocated stronger regulation. Drexler says, “There are new safety concerns raised by nano-particles and I believe these have not got enough attention.” Vicki L. Colvin, director of Rice University’s Centre for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN), Houston and one of the leading researchers in this area, points out “in a field with more than 12,000 citations a year, we were stunned to discover no prior research in developing nanomaterials risk-assessment models, and no toxicology studies devoted to synthetic nanomaterials.” In an interview, Colvin cites two reasons to be concerned about nanomaterials. Because of their small size, they may access areas of the body larger materials cannot, like healthy cells. In addition, properties are very different at the nanometer scale. “Researchers do not know,” she says, “how nanomaterials are cleared from the body, whether they are degraded, and whether they accumulate in the environment.”



While the debate between scientists is about what kind of controls are needed for nanotechnology materials and research, The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, a Canadian group earlier known as RAFI and active in the GM foods campaign, has published a paper earlier in April calling for all nanotechnology research to be put on hold until the health risks of ultra-fine particles can be assessed. Green Peace has also joined the debate with also demanding that all nanotechnology research be stopped.




The debate is even more contentious when it comes to self-replicating atomic scale machines constructed using nanotechnology. The man who coined the phrase nanotechnology, Eric Drexler argues that use of nanotechnology for nanomaterials is only a marketing hype and nanotechnology definition should be much more restrictive. Drexler says, “I introduced the term nanotechnology in the mid-1980s to describe technology based on molecular machine systems that are able to build more molecular machine systems”. (New Scientist, 29 April 03) In this definition, nanotechnology refers to atomic scale machines that can replicate themselves or build other machines and not atomic scale particles.



The uses of such atomic scale machines are a myriad. They could enter our blood stream and do complicated surgery: removal of cancerous cells, repairing various organs and so on. They could be programmed to produce bionic devices and therefore continue with the electronic revolution in computing. The computing power, which is set to reach limits of micron level devices, could continue for a few more decades with nano level technologies. However, these nano dreams have major fears associated with technology running amuck.



If we can build atomic scale machines that can also build more such machines, they can become self-replicating. What is then to prevent the uncontrolled explosion of such machines and everything being covered under a mass of nano technologically active slime? This would result in the extinction of all life forms with grey goo covering the entire world. Drexler’s atomic machines put the shivers up a lot of spines. Michael Crichton has written a terrifying new best seller Prey on sentient swarm of nanobots gone rogue. Price Charles, who earlier campaigned against Genetically Modified foods has also voiced his concern about grey goo. In contrast, Richard Smalley, Nobel winner in Chemistry for discovering buckyballs, holds that such atomic level machines are impossible to construct. Smalley takes the position that nanoscale machines are a physical impossibility because of the difficulty of manipulating individual atoms as they stick to any surface: the “sticky fingers problem.” In Drexler’s view however, self-replicating atomic scale machines are inevitable; if nature can do it, so can we. It is just a matter of time.



Obviously, self-replicating nanobots raise a much wider area of concern than nanomaterials. How would we ensure that their growth could be controlled when we are not able to even contain the growth of new plant species introduced in a new environment? Lacking the balance between preys and predators in nature has seen the explosive growth of water hyacinth in India and rabbits in Australia. Both have become pests that cannot be tackled easily. Obviously, even if Bill Joy’s grey goo and Michael Crichton appear far-fetched, the self-replicating atomic scale machines have enormous concerns regarding safety.



Nanotechnology multiplies the fears of genetically modified organisms. Science is entering into realms that allow manipulation of nature in a fundamental way. It produces products not found in nature and therefore whose properties and long-term consequences are not well known or difficult to predict. For the gung ho scientists who also could be tied up to a nanotech firm, and the market gurus, desperately in search of a new balloon to lift the stock market, nanotech is the new Holy Grail. To others, it is the end of the world. While the need for regulation and social control over technology is critical at a time when science is entering into areas that have far reaching consequences, it is futile to ask for a moratorium on nanoscience research as Greenpeace and ETC are doing. This is not because nanomaterials and research do not need regulation and control, but due to the inability of compartmentalising scientific research. We cannot stop nano research unless we are prepared to stop all scientific research.



The domain of science does not have the simple boundaries we think it does. Nanoscience is a combination of scientific research conducted in biological, chemical and quantum physics domains. All these are existing disciplines. They have been investigating quantum phenomenon and dealing with DNA strands all of which are in the nano domain. So how do we now stop these activities, which have been practised for decades? Do we then stop all research in these disciplines? If not how do we charatcetise what is nano and what is not? Trying to create a banned area in between the quantum and the macro level is impossible.



The problem in science and technology today is that as our knowledge of nature increases, so does our potential to do good and the bad. While earlier both were limited, with the expansion of knowledge boundaries, both have grown enormously.  And it is not necessary that we will reap enormous benefits from each of the knowledge boundaries we break. Just as small advances can have enormous technological consequences and benefits. It is this new world of possibilities and dangers that we are entering into. A heedless plunge into this could take us down a precipice. But not developing our knowledge is also not an option. It is like a child refusing to grow up as the world of childhood is a much more comfortable one. And it is the adult choice of need versus gratification that we have to make.


Finally, the choices as a society today are distorted by capitalism. It is the urge for unconcerned growth and profits – the gratification of greed at all costs – that magnifies the danger of both biotechnology and nanotechnology. If we allow multinational corporations and global capital driven by their greed to take all decisions regarding safety and regulations, we are likely to face disasters. The focus has to come back to the danger that capitalism poses to nature and life instead of the science and technology of the nano world posing such dangers.


3rd August 2003