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People's Democracy

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 level.

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."


CORPORATE INVOLVEMENT

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.


CONTENTIOUS DEBATE

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 running
amuck.

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.

-end-