ENVIRONMENTAL & SAFETY ISSUES: Nanotechnology, The New Buzz Word
"It is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be."
Nanotechnology is predicted to be the change mentioned by Asimov that will indefinitely impact the world "as it will be." However, despite soaring interest in nanotechnology and its emergence as the latest buzz word, very few are actually able to grasp its meaning and applications, let alone make sensible decisions regarding future development and use.
IntroductionNanotechnology is the science devoted to the manipulation of matter's basic building blocks - atoms and molecules ranging in size from 1 to 100 nanometers. This scale is often difficult to comprehend, considering that there are one billion nanometers in one meter, or that one nanometer is approximately 40,000 times smaller than the width of an average human hair .
At the nanolevel, the physical, chemical and biological properties of matter are markedly different from those properties of the bulk material it once comprised. Therefore, nanotechnology's primary goal is to understand and create improved materials, devices and systems that exploit these new and unique properties .
Companies have already applied it to products we purchase and use today. For example, the Wilson Double Core tennis ball (the official ball of the Davis Cup Tournament) has clay nanoparticles embedded in the lining of its inner wall that slows the escape of air from the ball, making it last twice as long. Further, nano-Care fabrics, of which Eddie Bauer chinos are made, incorporate nanowhiskers, making them stain-resistant to water-based liquids like coffee and wine .
How Nano Came to BeThe defining event in nanotechnology history was the invention of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) and Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) by IBM researchers. This breakthrough was instrumental for scientists to observe and maneuver individual atoms . Since that time, over a dozen Nobel prizes have been awarded in nanotechnology, over 600 companies are active in nanoresearch, and in the last year governments and corporations invested $4 billion in nanotechnology projects .
To further this technology, President Clinton created the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a federal program funding nanotechnology research and development. This investment, which continues today, is justified by the positive benefits society could realize through this technology . Some of these potential benefits include:
- Making materials and products from the bottom-up, which requires less material and creates less pollution
- Developing materials that are orders of magnitude stronger than steel but a fraction of the weight
- Detecting cancerous tumors that are only a few cells in size using nanoengineered particles
All of these applications in and of themselves are revolutionary and would dramatically change the world "as it will be." However, due to the infancy of this technology, we are just beginning to scratch the surface regarding any unintended impacts to the environment or human health that could result from the development, use and disposal of nanotech products.
Consider the following: Years ago a product was introduced having the ability to change the future of farming and dramatically improve the quality of life for people all around the globe with little or no detriment. Coined the "wonder insecticide," DDT was credited with saving thousands of lives in World War II by killing typhus-carrying lice and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. However, the fate of DDT (banned today) speaks for itself and illustrates the consequences related to the release of products without sufficient research regarding their future environmental, as well as human health, implications.
ConclusionThe debate over nanotechnology research and product development will continue to thrive and encompasses the full gambit of viewpoints, ranging from "strike while the iron is hot" scientists to doomsday predictors fearing the destruction of the earth by "nanobots."
Regardless of the various opinions on the rate at which nanotechnology will be implemented or the side effects it will produce, "people who make it a habit of keeping up with technology advances agree on this: It is a technology in its infancy, and it holds the potential to change everything."