In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman predicted a future in which scientists would, by manipulating atoms and molecules, be able to build materials and structures of higher strength, lighter weight, increased control of the light spectrum, and greater chemical reactivity.
Everything of a physical nature – human beings, plants, minerals, air – is composed of combinations of atoms and molecules bound together either by shape or electronic charge. Manipulating atoms on a nano-scale would theoretically allow humans to reproduce everything from diamonds to food.
While the benefits of such technology are virtually countless, it has created considerable concern among some that molecular manipulation may unwittingly bring more problems than solutions – up to, and including, human extinction. Organizations such as Friends of the Earth of Australia, Individuals Tending Toward Savagery in Mexico, and the Organic Consumers Association in America actively oppose any further development of nano-scale projects.
What Is “Scale” and Why Is It Important?
Nanotechnology is the science that deals with the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale – in other words, much smaller than what the naked eye can see. Each nanometer is one billionth of a meter – approximately the length a fingernail grows in one second. To put that in perspective, a human hair is roughly 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide, a red blood cell is 2,500 nanometers, and a strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter.
It is only through the development of extraordinary precision instruments, such as the scanning tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope, that nanotechnology has become possible. Its promise and risk arise from our growing understanding of quantum physics, which deals with ultra-small objects. Surprisingly, the behavior of substances on a nanoscale is often contrary to its properties on a larger scale.
For example, substances in bulk form that can’t carry an electric charge – insulators – may become semiconductors on a nano level, just as melting points and other physical properties may change. An aluminum Coke can ground down into a powder of 20 to 30 nanometers may spontaneously ignite in air – a property that makes it a rocket fuel catalyst. Similarly, both a diamond and the graphite in a pencil are made from carbon, but they have vastly different properties due to the way the carbon atoms bond.
As science has expanded in the “nano” field, so has the terminology. Here are some basic definitions:
- Nanotechnology: Any technology, including traditional industrial and chemical processes, that involves structures between one and one hundred nanometers, with novel properties. Nanotechnology coatings are already in use to make clothing with stain-resistant fibers and high-performance sunscreen lotions, for example.
- Nanofactories: On a nanoscale, every manufacturing method is simply a method for arranging atoms. Also called “molecular assemblers,” nanofactories are tiny, closed-system manufacturing units that maneuver, combine, and manipulate reactive molecules to build complex physical and biological structures – from minerals, to human organs and bones. A single human cell is the perfect example of a biological molecular manufacturing unit, or nanofactory, that reads digital genetic material (DNA) to guide the process of combination. John Burch of the Foresight Institute predicts that applications of biological molecular engineering and manufacturing should expand and evolve rapidly by the mid-21st century.
- Nanobots: These are products of nanofactories, but are not expected to be self-replicating or directed. Nanobots fall at the intersection of nanotechnology and robotics and are more science-fiction than science, at this point. However, there are certainly intriguing possibilities for their use, especially within human bodies. Some futurists project that nanobots may one day be able to travel through the bloodstream searching for, and treating, specific diseased cells. An example might be a nanobot that only attacks and destroys cancers of a specific type.
Current and Future Uses of Nanotechnology
According to the Society of Toxicology, advances in nanotechnology are already producing a variety of new materials. They are also adapting old materials, such as carbon, thus giving them “great potential to improve consumer and industrial products, address critical energy needs, enhance security systems, and improve the medical field.”
Carbon nanotubes – imagine a sheet of carbon atoms rolled up – appear now in consumer products like tennis racquets and golf clubs. They exhibit 200 times the strength and five times the elasticity of steel, five times the electrical conductivity of copper, and half the density of aluminum. In addition, they do not rust, degrade from radiation, or expand or contract with temperature change. In this regard, the appeal of their application in such products as automobiles and airplanes becomes quite obvious.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at Virginia Tech lists more than 1,790 existing consumer products that are nano-enabled, including cotton sheets, degreasers, golf shafts, paint, and cosmetics. Some scientists have even predicted that solar cells can eventually be developed with such durability and at such a low cost as to allow their use in roofing, sidewalks, and roads – making way for a nonpolluting, abundant, and inexpensive energy supply.
Specific examples of existing products using nanotechnology include the following:
- Seldon Technologies‘ MineralWater system is a carbon nanotube filtration device that removes pathogens and contaminants such as viruses, bacteria, cysts, and spores to deliver potable water that exceeds the USEPA drinking water standard.
- Linde Electronics‘ carbon nanotube ink is for displays, sensors, and electronic devices such as a smartphone with a roll-up screen or a see-through GPS device embedded in the windshield of a car.
- Sunscreen products that include titanium dioxide or zinc oxide nano-particles reflect or absorb cancer-causing ultraviolet light. These products are invisible and longer-lasting, and have lower irritant and allergen materials, than traditional sunscreens.
- Many over-the-counter bandages now contain nanoparticles of silver that prevent infection around cuts and abrasions, effectively blending antibiotic ointment with the bandage.
- Antibacterial swimming pool liquids. These are more effective at combating harmful bacteria while reducing swimmers’ exposure to the harsh chemicals of previous products.
As projected by the Foresight Institute, the everyday benefits of an increased availability of nanofactories would include the following:
- Medical Nanorobots That Cure Disease and Reverse Aging. Robert Freitas, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, projects in his Nanomedicine Book Series a future where medical nanorobots are introduced into the human body to perform cellular and microscopic surgeries, repair specific injuries, and patrol the body to identify and resist disease. On the website for the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, Burch described a scenario where an ingested pill would supply molecular materials with instructions for nanobots to form new neurons to replace damaged or dying brain cells. These new brain cells would process information much faster than a biological brain, just as an artificial limb can be stronger than a human arm or leg.
- Reduced Cost of Manufactured Products. Basic costs will fall to the value of raw materials such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen and the energy required to operate nanofactory. Imagine an automobile built of carbon fibers and created in nanofactories – rather than with materials that require mining, processing, and configuration. Theoretically, virtually any material or object can be assembled bottom-up by a combination of nanofactories. Large-scale results occur when simultaneous and synergistic nanoscale processes are combined. Eric Drexler, an American engineer known for popularizing nanotechnology, predicts a future of desk-top factories making large, useful products, similar to the “replicator” of “Star Trek” fame. In fact, in June 2014, Nestle’s Institute of Health Sciences announced a new project that may eventually lead to a “kitchen machine that can create tailored supplements – or even food.”
- Development of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). According to Foresight Institute, nanofactories will include machine systems for engineering and technical work which, in turn, will manufacture computers that are thousands of times more powerful and inexpensive than current computers. As machines learn and transfer knowledge from one application or environment to another, rapid advances become probable. However, there is some question as to how quickly AGI can be achieved. Since 1990, a prize of $100,000 has been available to anyone whose machine can fool independent judges into thinking it is human while engaged in freeform conversation. The prize has yet to be awarded.
- Elimination of Industrial Chemical Pollution. Since every atom in organic food stock is used in the final product, or directed into properly packaged waste, no polluting atoms are released into the environment. For example, natural coal produces pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, airborne physical particles, and mercury when burned. Building an artificial fuel that eliminates by-products, or converts them into non-harmful form, would be healthier and less expensive.
The Perils & Risks of Nanotechnology
Even proponents of nanotechnology, such as Burch and Drexler, recognize its potential to harm and possibly annihilate the human race if the technology is uncontrolled or misdirected. These potentially harmful effects include the following:
- Overpopulation. The mortality rate for humans over 80 years of age has decreased about 1.5% per year since the 1960s. Robert Freitas, Jr. suggests that advances in nanotechnology will eliminate all genetic diseases and slow aging, “augmenting human healthspan at least tenfold.” If increases in longevity do not reduce births, the human race would expand exponentially, exacerbating societal tensions and potentially exhausting resources.
- Increase in Crime and Terrorism. Chemical and biological weapons could become more deadly and easier to conceal or track, especially if they become available on the black market or can be constructed in a home factory. Nanofactories theoretically could produce an intelligent anti-personnel weapon the size of an insect capable of carrying a lethal dose of botulism. The number of such weapons capable of killing every human being on the planet could be packed into a single suitcase.
- Disparity Between Haves and Have-Nots. Nanotechnology developments are likely to be initially expensive and consequently protected by layers of patents, laws, and anti-competitive barriers. Accordingly, the benefits of lower costs are likely to be limited to the owners of the technology. Poverty and income disparity could become more exaggerated, thus generating social unrest.
- Conflicts Over Religious Beliefs and Lifestyles. Throughout the world, products are banned or restricted based upon religious or moral principles not necessarily shared by the majority. Examples include guns in Britain, alcohol in Muslim societies, and recreational drugs in various countries. The ability to produce banned products in personal nanofactories could cause disruption in those societies.
- Appearance of “Grey Goo.“ Some scientists are concerned that self-replicating nanofactories may run amok, eating the biosphere in a frenzied effort to make unlimited copies of themselves. Just as anti-social behavior is irresistible to a certain percentage of the population – as evidenced by the number of computer viruses in existence – irresponsible people and groups are likely to make self-replicating nanofactories, thereby increasing the possibility of disaster.
Steve Jurvetson, managing director of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, claims that the future of nanotechnology is not a matter of “if,” but rather “when.” Josh Wolfe, co-founder of Lux Capital and editor of the Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report agrees, saying that everything – clothing, food, cars, housing, medicine, communication devices, the air we breathe and the water we drink – will undergo “profound and fundamental change. And as a result, so will the socio and economic structure of the world.”
Will nanotechnology be the “philosopher’s stone” capable of making every wish come true, or the opening of Pandora’s box, unleashing unimaginable hardship and horrors on human life as we know it?