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


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