Everyone will have heard the term ‘nanotechnology’, but many may not know what it is and why it’s important, and I imagine that most people don’t realise that it’s already here with us, at least in some low-level form, though it promises to occupy many more areas of our lives. And fewer people are aware of the potential risks and dangers that we must guard against.
What is nanotechnology, then, and why is it important but potentially dangerous? The term ‘nano’ simply means 1 billionth. Thus a nanometre is a billionth of a meter, or 1 millionth of a millimetre. And what makes that scale important is that it corresponds to the sizes of atoms and molecules. Hence nanotechnology, which is the application of nanoscience, is simply all possible techniques and applications that are based on manipulating individual atoms and molecules, producing specific changes in cells or in materials and objects, thus making them behave in novel ways.
Manipulating atoms is both very difficult and hugely fruitful, because at that scale, particles adopt a “quantum” behaviour, displaying unusual, even strange properties and effects. Replace one atom with another and suddenly a solid material becomes fluid, an insulator becomes a semi-conductor, a molecule becomes lethal to a tumour, and so forth. Hence we can, in principle or in practice, build devices that can take advantage of those quantum effects. And so we developed the ‘scanning tunnelling microscope’ and the ‘atomic force microscope’, which can see at scales a thousand times smaller than what the normal microscope can see.
Potential applications of nanoscience are too numerous and too varied to list, and while so far a few thousand products have been developed, it is believed that within a decade or two, every aspect of our lives will have been impacted by nanotechnology at deeper levels and in more amazing ways.
To give just a few examples of the important potential applications of nanoscience, consider how the field of medicine is expected to be transformed in the near future. By manipulating and assembling atoms, nanotechnology will produce particular molecules that can kill cancerous tumours without affecting any normal cells at all, because those new molecules will have the properties that allow them to interact only with sick cells. The “nano-drug” could simply be swallowed for the molecules to find their way to the target cells.
Similarly, new materials, again built by putting together particular atoms and molecules, could have the ability to cut through cells at the smallest scale, thus allowing for nano-surgery. Conversely, special molecules could be sent to “fix” cells, particularly in the brain (think Alzheimer, cancer, and various other serious illnesses), by plugging a break or a defect in the nerves or other cells. Cosmetic surgery would also be transformed by nanomaterials and devices — the possibilities are endless.
One of the applications of nanotechnology that is already here is the carbon nanotubes, which are very thin sheets of carbon that are rolled to make a tube, giving it such strength as “hanging an elephant by a thread”, as the famous example goes. Such materials are being introduced in the design and manufacturing of new cars and aeroplanes, making them both sturdy and lightweight, thus yielding significant improvements in safety and fuel economy. You might be surprised to learn that these materials are also being used in sports (tennis balls and rackets) and clothing, and in the future — we are told — garments with “nanobots” will be transformable by simple touches, by changes in the ambient light, or other effects.
Is this all too good to be true? There must be some hidden, unintended effects, right? Life is never so perfect, is it?
There are indeed potential risks and dangers that we must be very careful about. Those specially crafted new molecules, nanobots, and materials, while they will have those great properties, may very well affect humans, animals, or plants in ways that we had not foreseen, and once released to do one great job, might have other (dangerous) effects. Cases of this sort have already been observed, such as workers exhibiting illnesses after inhaling nano-products that had been developed for some industrial application. And nightmare scenarios have been imagined where carbon nanobots go on to grab carbon atoms from the environment in possibly unstoppable ways, although this is more in the realm of science fiction...
We must neither dramatise nor dismiss such risks and potential dangers. We must simply be fully cognisant of them and develop safety checks and procedures to ensure that we get the best of what the nanotechnology revolution promises to offer and none of its potential hazards.
I think it is no exaggeration to state that we are at the cusp of another big and wide-reaching transformation of many if not all areas our lives. Nanotechnology brings a promise of wonderful things in our lives, provided with steer the technology carefully.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.