Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
August 3, 2003 [Vol. XXVII, No. 31]
Nanotechnology: The Genie Is Out Of The Bottle
By Prabir Purkayastha
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.
WHAT IS NANOTECHNOLOGY
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
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.
ISSUE OF REGULATION
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
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.
WIDER AREA OF CONCERN
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.