TCS Daily


Entering the Nano-Age?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week, I wrote about the EPA Science Advisory Board meeting where nanotechnology was discussed. I learned a lot of interesting things there, but one of the things that I learned is that, even for people like me who try to keep up, the pace of nanotechnology research is moving much too fast to catch everything.

One of the documents distributed at that meeting was a supplement to the President's 2004 budget request, entitled National Nanotechnology Initiative: Research and Development Supporting the Next Industrial Revolution. I expected it to be the usual bureaucratic pap, but in fact, it turned out to contain a lot of actual useful information, including reports of several nanotechnology developments that I had missed.

 

The most interesting, to me, was the report of "peptide nanotubes that kill bacteria by punching holes in the bacteria's membrane." You might think of these as a sort of mechanical antibiotic. As the report notes, "By controlling the type of peptides used to build the rings, scientists are able to design nanotubes that selectively perforate bacterial membranes without harming the cells of the host." It goes on to note that "In theory, these nano-bio agents should be far less prone than existing antibiotics to the development of bacterial resistance." What's more, if such resistance appears it is likely to be easier to counter. Given the way in which resistance to conventional antibiotics has exploded, this is awfully good news.

 

Another item involved the use of nanoscale particles of metallic iron to clean up contaminated groundwater. In one experiment, aimed at the contaminant trichloroethylene (TCE), the results were quite impressive: "The researchers carried out a field demonstration at an industrial site in which nanoparticles injected into a groundwater plume containing TCE reduced contaminant levels by up to 96%." The report goes on to observe that " A wide variety of contaminants (including chlorinated hydrocarbons, pesticides, explosives, polychlorinated biphenyls and perchlorate) have been successfully broken down in both laboratory and field tests." This sounds
promising.

 

There are also fascinating items on the development of nano-sensors capable of identifying particular microbes or chemicals, of nano-motors, and of dramatic advances in materials. And this raises a couple of interesting points.

 

The first is that it's possible for a technology to have revolutionary impacts long before it reaches its maturity. The impact of high- strength materials, for example, is likely to be much greater than people generally realize. Materials science isn't sexy the way that, say, robots are sexy, but when you can cut the weight, or boost the strength, of aircraft, or spacecraft, or even automobiles by a factor of ten or fifty, the consequences are enormous. Ditto for killing germs, or even detecting them in short order. These sorts of things aren't as exciting as true molecular nanotechnology, and they're not as revolutionary. But they're still awfully important, and awfully revolutionary, by comparison with everything else.

 

Up to now, talk of nanotechnology has generally involved either the "fake" variety (stain-resistant pants) or the "spooky" variety (full-scale molecular nanotechnology, with all it implies). But as what might be called mid-level nanotechnology -- neither fake nor spooky -- begins to be deployed, it's likely to have a substantial effect on the nature of the debate. It's one thing to worry about (fictitious) swarms of predatory nanobots, a la Michael Crichton's novel Prey. It's another to talk about nanotech bans or moratoria when nanotechnology is already at work curing diseases and cleaning up the environment.

 

I think that will probably shift the debate away from the nano-Luddites. But, on the other hand, as nanotechnology looks more quotidian, it may also short-circuit serious discussion of its implications. I think that the nanotech business community is actually hoping for such an outcome, in fact, but I continue to believe that such hopes are shortsighted. Genetically modified foods, for example, came to the market with the same absence of discussion, but the result wasn't so great for the industry. Will nanotechnology be different? Stay tuned.

 

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