Nanotechnology – the next GM?

Green fears about 'self-replicating nano-bots' and 'grey goo' risk subverting rational discussion of a useful new technology.

Martin Livermore

Topics Science & Tech

Nanotechnology – a broad term covering the use of techniques to manipulate matter at an atomic scale – is gradually entering the public consciousness. But what is it, and why is it causing debate and disquiet?

Already, there are applications of very fine particles (one of the simplest ways nanotechnology manifests itself) in cosmetics. Carbon nanotubes (rather more complex materials, with unique properties) are being made commercially in the UK. But we know for sure when a new technology is becoming important when environmentalist pressure groups get in on the act, issuing dire warnings about how nanotechnology could be the next major issue after genetically modified (GM) food.

So what’s the problem? One difficulty is that so many different technologies are encompassed. This is compounded by the fact that some enthusiastic scientists have a tendency to oversell their visions of the future. This is the way that ‘self-replicating nano-bots’ have entered the cultural imagination. A picture has been painted of tiny robots that can get out of control, culminating in the infamous ‘grey goo’ covering the planet as the little pests consume everything else.

Reality, as ever, is more mundane. In practice, developments to date have been pretty ordinary, though useful. For example, sunscreens are now available containing nanoparticles of zinc oxide. These tiny particles make the formulation clear rather than white, while having the same absorptive
capacity for ultra-violet rays.

Another new development is self-cleaning glass. Pilkington, a major glassmaking company, is producing window glass with a very thin coating of titanium dioxide particles. These break down organic material via their absorption of sunlight and make the surface water repellent. The net effect is to break down dirt that normally has to be washed off, and allow it to be washed away by rain, leaving a clean surface.

This is not to say that nanotechnology will always be unexciting; far from it. The potential was highlighted by the American futurologist K Eric Drexler, for whom the holy grail is the development of ‘nano-bots’ programmed to assemble just about anything. At their ultimate, according to Drexler and his ilk, they could produce complex foodstuffs, furniture or indeed just about anything that is currently produced in a conventional factory. It was Drexler himself who coined the term ‘grey goo’, although his view now is that this is not a credible threat. (1)

But we are far from this nano-utopia – or dystopia, as some would have it. In 1985, researchers at IBM famously managed to spell its company’s name in xenon atoms: the letters stood only five nanometres tall. This was a smart demonstration of the possibility of moving individual atoms, but of little practical use. Although we can envisage building tiny machines, examples put forward to date tend to be versions of mechanical devices: gear wheels and the like.

Although elegant in concept, this is an over-simplification that leads us to think that atoms are essentially just like billiard balls, which can be handled and assembled at will. This is far from the truth, since chemical bonds require considerable energy to break them and only certain combinations of atoms will bond with each other. The other requirement is energy: full-scale machines are operated by plugging into an electricity supply or starting a motor. These are not options available on an atomic

On the other hand, there are existing ‘nano-machines’ that can already rapidly and efficiently manipulate molecules: enzymes. Each is perfectly suited to catalysing a single reaction: breaking down starch, polymerising nucleic acids, and so on. So perhaps the nano-bots of the future will be more like biological molecules. The problem is that to achieve assembly of complex materials or structures requires a quantum leap (or probably several quantum leaps) in sophistication. Highly intricate webs of changes must be
made to occur in a set sequence to achieve the desired result. Any errors could result in total failure. Such complexity is characteristic of living cells, but even these do not work together to produce complex structures; instead they themselves form organs.

So nano-assembly is at least as difficult as what goes on in biological systems. The other aspect of the utopian vision is that the assemblers should themselves be self-replicating. In this model, once we have created the nano-bots, programmed to perform certain tasks, they reproduce themselves to save us the problem of renewing them.

If this ever came to pass, we would truly enter a new age. Almost anything could be produced by making the right mix of nano-bots, adding them to any material which contained the appropriate mix of elements and letting them work. Individual commodities would have virtually no value except perhaps as a rich source of particular atoms. The world economy would be transformed.

Of course, such a future would almost certainly never come to pass. But the hint that such self-replication may even be possible has seriously worried environmentalists. It’s quite right and necessary in a free society that critics should be able to point out potential problems, so that new technologies can be introduced in a better way. The problem is that some powerful lobby groups seem dead set against new technologies just because they are new, and promoted by private industry.

The lead has been taken by the Canadian-based ETC group (the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), which is ‘dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights’. In practice, that means it tends to look down on modern industrialised society, is suspicious of new technologies, and regards multinational businesses as the devil incarnate.

In its 2003 report on nanotechnology, ‘The Big Down – Atomtech; technologies converging at the nano-scale’, the ETC group states: ‘Atomtech will allow industry to monopolise atomic-level manufacturing platforms that underpin all animate and inanimate matter.’ (2) This single sentence encapsulates much of its philosophy: combining a new buzzword that can be given bad connotations (‘atomtech’ – will we be hearing about ‘Frankenparticles’ next?); trying to scare people with a phrase highlighting the effrontery of Man trying to tinker with Nature (‘…that underpin all animate and inanimate matter’), and making use of the ‘I’ word (industry). It’s a potent cocktail for our fearful times.

These messages play well to the policymaking elite, inherently risk-averse and generally with little real understanding of science. Policymakers are very susceptible to the concept that feelings are as important as facts in discussions such as these. They expect that ‘the public’ will reject whatever is on the agenda at the time. We saw it happen with GM foods (with a good deal of helpful foot-shooting by some in the industry). Most people don’t give a damn about GM, but a vocal minority ensures that a sense of outrage has been created. In these circumstances, civil servants, politicians and food manufacturers and retailers tend to shy away from making rational decisions, based on facts, opting instead to play it safe.

It is this precaution, the sensible-sounding adage ‘better safe than sorry’, which permeates European decision-making. Continual use of this precautionary approach – demanding greater safety in everything we do, even if this means eschewing real potential benefits of new technologies – will make Europe less and less competitive.

The USA has already been handed the lead in biotechnology, and will increasingly see China rather than Europe as the serious competition. Precaution has reduced the agricultural biotechnology research effort on this side of the Atlantic to a shadow of what it was. If Europe is not to lose another nascent industry, we must ensure that nanotechnology does not, indeed, become ‘the next GM’.

Martin Livermore is a freelance science communicator and consultant.

(1) Safe exponential manufacturing, Nanotechnology, 15, 9 June 2004

(2) The Big Down: Atomtech – Technologies Converging at the Nano-scale, ETC Group, 30 January 2003

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Topics Science & Tech


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