Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The Race for Nanoland

Is 'grey goo' about to eat the planet? Probably not, but there are real dangers with the development of nanotechnology that are not being addressed.

September 1, 2006
10 min read

Nanotech: A consumer Guide

A $1 trillion market lies just over the horizon. Not a previously undiscovered continent whose resources can be pillaged and inhabitants trained to labour and consume, nor a nearby planet where the little green men will trade in platinum for bottle tops – here we are talking about nanotechnology.

The claims and projections for this emerging basket of processes and products suggest its impact could be as major as finding a new land mass or trading with planetary neighbours. And nanotechnology is going to affect our lives, bringing benefits but also broken promises and serious dangers.

Nanotechnology is the systematic exploitation of the properties materials display at the scarcely conceivable scale of billionths of a metre, far smaller than most contemporary commercial chemical processes operate. At this scale many materials act very differently from how they behave at a larger scale. Basic sciences teaches us that diamonds and charcoal have different qualities but are both made of carbon. Similar disparities are exploited by nanotechnology. For example, materials that may not conduct electricity at a larger scale may be highly efficient at the nanoscale, or the colour or transparency they display may be different, or they may be massively stronger. They may gain or lose toxicity.

The manipulation of these properties has applications in just about every area of life – from the very mundane (and already commercially available), such as translucent sun lotion and self-cleaning windows, to the highly targeted delivery of drugs specifically to infected cells, massive increases in the efficiency of solar power and fuel cells, and advances in computing that could both extend the limited lifetime of the current chip-based paradigm and take us way beyond it into the realms of DNA and quantum switch computing.

The spin is that nanotechnology will feed the hungry, power the energy-poor, and conquer disease. Its applications do indeed have the potential to bring great benefits. Tiny and highly efficient diagnostic kits capable of instantaneous scanning for hundreds of conditions and illnesses could be made from nanoscale components called quantum dots, housed in a latex bead and exposed to a light source. Solar panelling that can be rolled out like roofing felt could power the most remote communities while water is efficiently filtered to eradicate a range of diseases. The most appalling pollution of land and water might be reversed using nanoparticles of iron.

We have been here before. Biotechnology was going to feed the world but what it has done is to tie millions of farmers to the products supplied by a handful of powerful corporations, speeded up the plunder of seed varieties from the developing world, and raised health and environmental concerns that have seen Europe refuse US foodstuff that Washington has then attempted to dump on African countries.

While some developing countries do have niche nanotechnology research programmes of their own, the spend on R&D is inevitably concentrated in the institutions and corporations of the rich world. Indeed, there is fierce competition between corporations and states to dominate nanotechnology. In 2000-2003, worldwide government spending on nanotechnology research was some $3 billion, more than three times that of the previous three years. The US federal spend for last year was estimated at nearly $890 million, and that excludes direct military spend and state level expenditure. Committees and hearings regularly assess the dangers of being outpaced by others.

At the same time, there is scarcely a major manufacturer in the world that does not have a nanotechnology strategy. For some it is a matter of wanting to exploit new materials and processes ahead of competitors. For others it is a matter of understanding emerging technology that might render their current processes and products obsolete. Some invest in in-house research, others farm it out to universities, or buy in to small specialist companies, or purchase patents or licences from players too small to exploit their discoveries.

With US government agencies touting a market value for nanotechnology of $1 trillion by 2015 (a more cautious €220 billion by 2010 is used by one German bank), there is little wonder at the excitement among corporate strategists. For the car industry, just the probable savings on rare metals used for catalytic converters is forecast to bring early savings of $1 billion a year and more accurate engineering another $2.5 billion. High-tech sensors at the nanoscale will have applications for medicine, transport ergonomics and security with a potential 2012 value of $17 billion, according to some estimates. And so it goes on for industry after industry, perhaps the most impressive being the semiconductor industry, where the value of nanotechnology could be $300 billion before 2020.

And what of curing malaria or lighting and heating fuel-poor communities? If there have been any studies of the market potential, we can be sure they are considerably less attractive than putting investment into treatment for obesity in American teenagers or supplying light-sensitive, power generating glazing for European office blocks.

Inevitably the military is deeply implicated in nanotechnology, particularly the US military. The quadrennial defence reviews that are the road maps of US strategy highlighted the importance of nanotechnology in 2001. Ambitions include the development of ‘smart dust’, minute sensors deployed by the billion to monitor battlefields or entire regions. Missouri University has an army contract to marry nanoparticles and microchip technology into miniaturised warheads.

Meanwhile, the flip side of the promises held out for medical treatment using nanoparticles and understanding and manipulation of their properties is the threat of hitherto unimagined varieties of chemical and biological warfare, a concern already identified by the British MoD. The US military talks of ‘bionanobots’ that might identify enemy combatants by DNA analysis and then self-destruct in the brain, and of nanobots that could destroy hardware by eroding metals or rubber.

We have become accustomed to the disparity in armour and firepower between the Palestinian stone thrower and the Israeli soldier, between ‘Rolling Thunder’ and the culvert bomb in Falluja. At MIT, the Institute for Soldier Technologies, partnered by Raytheon and DuPont amongst others, is using nanotechnology as part of the Future Force Warrior project ‘to create a lightweight, overwhelmingly lethal, full-integrated individual combat system, including weapon, head-to-toe individual protection, netted communications, soldier-worn power sources, and enhanced human performance’.

One of the reasons that biotech food reached the shelves before environmental and health questions had been addressed was because regulatory agencies were not up to the task of assessing new products. The expertise was concentrated in the higher-paying corporate sector. Additionally, where a new technology brings a paradigm shift, regulation is not geared up to ask the right questions.

This is the case with nanotechnology, and it means that we, as workers and consumers and inhabitants of our environment, are unshielded from the potential dangers of nanoproducts and processes. Materials manipulated at the nanoscale may well be familiar to regulatory authorities and have been passed as safe without those authorities having any proper understanding of the different properties – and potential hazards – of these materials at the nanoscale.

As late as 2005, there was no coordinated surveillance of new products anywhere because of their use of nanoparticles. Staggeringly, the US Food and Drugs Administration declared, ‘Particle size is not the issue.’ Even after the scandals and rows over GM foods, campaigners at the Canadian-based ETC Group found no regulation anywhere in the world governing the entry of nanoscale particles into food products. Treatments so small they can pass through the blood-brain barrier are a Holy Grail for researchers into Alzheimers, but what are the dangers of particles so small they can worm into every cell in our bodies? For a century communities have fought the blight of asbestosis. We do not know whether the rush to profit will unleash a hazard far more pervasive.

I have not touched on some of the more distant ambitions for and fears arising from nanotechnology – self-replicating products, factories in a shoe box, grey-goo consuming the planet. But if nanotechnology is to be anything like as transformative as governments and business believe, there are compelling reasons for civil society rapidly to involve itself. We need to be sure that profits are not put ahead of potentially catastrophic environmental and health risks, and that we are not at the starting line of a new arms race. More positively, we must demand that the benefits of an exciting new dimension in scientific research accrue not to those who need them least but to those who need them most.

Toby Shelley is the author of Nanotechnology: New Promises, New Dangers, Published by Zed Books this year at £9.99

Nanotech: A consumer Guide

From skin creams promising to peel off the years to top of the range, insulating insoles for your walking boots, nano particles have already made their way into a product near you. Most popular, according to the web directory NanoVip.Com, are Bionova’s nano skin care products against skin ageing. They work by replicating bio-nutrients, which exist in young, healthy bodies and re-establish cellular communication so that the body’s self-healing process is improved.

But do we really want to develop substances that can permeate our cells with such ease? The potential to heal many medical conditions is no doubt exciting, but we need to have proper regulation. Nanomaterials, sunscreens and cosmetics: small ingredients, big risks, a recent report from Friends of the Earth, estimates that there are ‘at least several hundred cosmetics, sunscreens and personal care products which contain nanomaterials’, most of which are untested. Manufacturers include L’Oreal, Estee Lauder, Proctor and Gamble, Chanel and Revlon. Potentially, we may be inhaling, ingesting and absorbing toxic materials on a daily basis.

Although the personal care industry is taking the lead in bringing nanomaterials to the unwitting consumer, it is not alone. Nanotechnology is also transforming the sporting world – for those who can afford it – with the introduction of bend-resistant golf clubs, extra sticky ski wax, super strong, lightweight bikes, stiffer tennis rackets and enhanced hockey sticks. A dream for some, a joke for many: where does this leave the concept of a fair game?

The Food Standards Agency states that it ‘is not aware of any examples of manufactured nanoparticles or other nanomaterials being used in food currently sold in the UK’. But according to the ETC Group, nano-scale ‘carotenoids’ – a food additive used in lemonades, fruit juices and margarines – are already in use. What is beyond dispute is that ‘nanofood’ research is big business, with estimates suggesting that the market in such products will be worth $10 billion globally by 2010. ‘Biofortified’ foods (with extra vitamins and minerals) are currently being developed. Unilever, meanwhile, is using nanotechnology to develop low fat ice creams.

And finally, a self-cleaning glass surface has been developed and patented by a number of companies, including the Taiwan-based Sino Technology Corporation. To those of us who worry about the ability of an engineered material to actually ‘break down’ organic matter, this is an alarming development. Sino’s slogan to ‘Beautify Our World With Nano Technology’ implies the most arrogant of assumptions: that we know better than nature. Do we?

Suzanne Fane-Saunders

ETC Group (Erosion, Technology and Concentration) – Activist website with reports on nanotechnology and corporate power, patents, and the potential implications of nanotechnology upon agriculture in the global South

Friends of the Earth Australia Nanotechnology Project – Activist resource site on nanotechnology, including a downloadable report on Nanotech, sunscreens and cosmetics and clear introductions for non-geeks

Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties

Royal Society report commissioned by the UK Government

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency