Insight Into The Nano World
25 May, 2007 03:56 pm
A technological revolution is occurring. It will create stronger materials, a new generation of medical treatments, and even more performant electronic components... Review of the nanotechnology revolution.
The prefix nano comes from a Greek term meaning “dwarf”. In the field of mathematics nano means 1 over 1 billion. Yet, scientists have discovered that at the nano scale – one billionth of a meter, 100 000 times finer than a strand of hair- the properties of matter change. Nanoscience is trying to manipulate molecules and atoms by reassembling them in order to create new products with astonishing abilities.
Many industries will be, or already are, transformed by nanotechnology. They will be able to create new materials (carbon nanotubes are 100 times more resistant and 6 times lighter than steel), new electronic components (the size of a transistor could be reduced by 1000 times), but it’s within the field of medicine that the anticipation is strongest. Nanomedicine is opening serious possibilities for the treatment of illnesses like cancer by revolutionizing the targeting of the drug: nanocarriers will transport the medicine directly inside the sick cells. Also, there is much anticipation of advances in the area of being able to diagnose illnesses and the treatment dosages among others.
Of course, militaries are also interested in nanotechnology. In the United States, MIT foresees a “super soldier” that would be equipped with a very resistant and lightweight armor that would be capable of treating injuries, adapt to various climatic conditions, and even be able to increase muscle strength. All this however raises some ethical questions.
Thus, nanotechnology has opened a debate that has been gaining in magnitude in the past few years. First, the risks are still unknown. Some types of nanomaterials could possibly break into fragments that could affect one’s lungs, the ecosystem, or the environment as a whole. Indeed, some of their applications are troubling. Beyond military applications, the “anti-nano” crowd denounces, for example, the infringement on one’s privacy due to nanometric chips RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), which are supposed to be used for stock management, that contain an antenna/receptor, and could be incorporated into all sorts of products. On the other hand, the transhuman movement wants nanoscience to be used in order to “improve human beings”. Within this context, an increasing number of scientists are calling for better regulations and an increased amount of transparency within nanoscience research.
Finally, nanotechnology could contribute to the increasing gap between developed and under-developed countries. In fact, the United States dedicated 900 million dollars (700 million euros) for the development of nanotechnology in 2005, outside of military applications, barely outpacing Europe and Japan. China and India aside, it is unclear how under-developed countries will be able to invest in this battlefield.
Is this a cure-all or a serious threat? If nanotechnology contains hopes and promises, it also carries with it legitimate concerns but also magical fantasies. What should be done? Some experts think that all that is necessary is to strengthen national regulatory bodies. Others want to go even further by creating new international bodies, for example at the same level as the UN, and persuading public opinion and the civil societies in the world to take control of these deciding subjects for the future of Humanity.
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