Everybody is talking about the world-changing potential of nanotechnology. We’re fast discovering how to manipulate the building blocks of life. But in our rush to master matter, are we neglecting the necessities of regulation? In our quest for technological perfection, could we really turn the world into one giant ball of ‘grey goo’? And is that risk alone a reason to halt the march of progress? Paul D. Ryan reports.
A growing body of evidence suggests that our ability to reorder atoms is evolving more rapidly than our comprehension of the consequences. if nanotechnology is the 21st Century’s industrial revolution, what will be its side-effect — its own global warming?From Shelley’s Frankenstein to Kubric’s HAL, science fiction writers continue to play on public fears that technology designed to help us will one day destroy us.
Much of this hype is no more sinister than the desire to tell a gripping tale. However, when technology can create something powerful or alter something fundamental, such as the building blocks of life, perhaps it is time to take stock and place a check on progress.
When it comes to technology, the new kid on the block is nanotechnology. More a continuum of the micro scale than a unique and autonomous technology, nanotech has nevertheless captured the imagination of scientists, governments and the general public. And it hasn’t all been positive.
DREXLER’S GREY GOO
In 1986, Dr K. Eric Drexler, considered by many to be the ‘father’ of nanotechnology, wrote a book entitled ‘Engines of Creation’ in which he cautioned against a nightmare scenario where self-replicating nanomachines, developed to enhance the molecular manufacturing process, could get out of control and spread like a cancer from molecule to molecule until all matter in the world was reduced to lifeless ‘grey goo’.
It was a truly terrifying proposition and one made more menacing by the public’s vague understanding of nanotechnology and the power it has been accorded. In November 2002, grey goo appeared as the nightmare protagonist in Michael Crichton’s novel ‘Prey’. In his 2003 book, ‘Our Final Hour’, British astronomer Sir Martin Rees identified grey goo as one of the less likely, though plausible, potential causes of human extinction by 2100 (he set our chance of survival at a dismal 50–50).
Even Prince Charles expressed his regal concern about it in 2003 (if republicanism wasn’t threatening enough).
However, despite public fears, ‘grey goo’ isn’t something that’s keeping the nano-fraternity awake at night.
Professor Michael Cortie of the Institute for Nanoscale Technology, University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) has considerable involvement in the NanoHouse project — a joint initiative between CSIRO and UTS to create and develop a display house showcasing everyday domestic nanotech innovations. He believes that nano has attracted appropriate hype, but shouldn’t be feared.
“We’re trying to alert the public to the fact that this is how it’s going to be, and that nanotech is already in all sorts of products,” says Cortie. “It’s just another kind of technology of science. It’s not really threatening. It shouldn’t be seen in the same light as genetic modification (GM), which has the purpose of developing an artificial organism that can self-replicate.”
Cortie says everyone can appreciate what can happen when a seed or animal gets out of its enclosure and goes feral, but this reasoning doesn’t apply to nanotech.
“Nanotech is not about self-replicating organisms. That’s something that science fiction writers propagated. Nobody seriously proposes that for nanotech,” says Cortie.
Associate Professor Erol Harvey, CEO of MiniFAB, a small tech fabrication facility located in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne, works with nanotechnology but regards himself primarily as a microtechnologist and has a certain distain for the number of scientists “rebadging” themselves as nanotechnologists.
“In terms of the safety aspect with regard to nanotechnology (concerning small particles, powders, new functional materials and so on), we obviously need to be careful,” says Harvey. “But then, all new changes to existing ways of doing things need similar care. I guess the real question is: does the regulatory method assess the potential harm? Are those regulatory methods set up in a way that is capable of dealing with this? I think in general, they are in pretty good shape.”
It’s a typical view among small tech scientists, but an attitude that is still yet to reach the broader masses. “Very often, technological capability goes ahead at a rate that is much faster than the public awareness and acceptance of that technology. That applies in many fields.”
Harvey believes that with nanotechnology, as with everything new, the key is to proceed with caution, never jumping too far ahead. “The developers and implementers of technology must always be aware that they need to bring public awareness with them and stay within the bounds of public comfort,” says Harvey.
So, is grey goo really just a perception problem — a victim of its own PR?
Late last year, I was fortunate enough to be the only journalist on a bus tour of Melbourne’s research and high-tech manufacturing precinct (CSIRO, Monash STRIP, MiniFAB) with several of the world’s leading authorities on micro and nanotechnology, including Bob Mehalso, Steve Walsh (US), Brian More (UK) Holger Becker and Patric Salomon (Ger), among others.
The tour was a pre-cursor to the Emerging Opportunities for Small Technologies conference (hosted by the Victorian Government). It was immediately apparent that a real sense of camaraderie existed among the group, who see each other regularly at small tech conferences around the world. Most notably, their shared passion was fuelled by an unshakeable sense of optimism. Far from blind fanatics, this group of hardened empiricists are genuinely excited about their ability to roll back the mysteries of matter for the benefit of all.
Perhaps it is this assured attitude of those leading the nanotech revolution that has fuelled the attending hype. However, some suggest that greed has also played a role.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Much of the recent hype surrounding nanotech stems from the large amount of US government funding for nanotechnology.
In his final year in office, President Clinton dedicated US$497 million to nanotech research and development. In December 2003, President Bush extended the commitment by pledging a whopping US$3.7 billion for nanotech R&D (which also established the American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center to study the emerging technology’s potential societal and ethical effects). The result was an influx of money for research proposals that contained the word ‘nano’ in their grant application. Suddenly, scientists researching molecular biology, chemistry and fine particle ceramics all started referring to their work as nanotechnology.
It resulted in unrealistically lofty expectations for nanotech. People thought that the first commercial products containing nanotechnology, such as stain-repellent pants and odour-eating socks, were merely a comic prelude to the profound society-changing nano-inventions to come. However, nano-cures for elusive diseases and large-scale nanomanufacturing are still some way off, and US venture capital funding for nanotech dropped away in 2004.
According to US technology magazine Red Herring, “nanotech has lost much of its lustre among venture capitalists. VC investment in nano startups fell from $386 million in 2002 to just $75 million in the first half of 2004.”
So are we nearing the end of nanotech’s dot com bubble?
Bob Hunt is the US-based Senior Investment Commissioner for Invest Australia, an Australian government agency charged with selling Australian investment opportunities to the world. He believes that the global nanotech industry is in a surreal stage of commercial development.
“You’re not going to get people excited by nano-treated trousers where you can spill coffee on them and it rolls off,” says Hunt. “The current returns just aren’t high enough for the VCs and the returns from the potentially revolutionary technologies — in biotech and electronics — are so far down the track and so hard to predict that it’s very difficult to model the kind of annual return VCs need.”
According to Cortie, scientists and investors “want to focus on the tangible.” But what happens when the intangible becomes tangible?
THINGS GET FISHY
In 1991, Japanese scientist Sumio Iijima discovered carbon nanotubes. These straw-shaped molecules of pure carbon are 100 times stronger and six times lighter than steel. They can be designed to be ultra flexible and configured to act as either semi-conductors or conductors. Carbon nanotubes are the jewel in the crown of the nascent nanotechnology industry.
There will soon be nanotube fuel cells for laptops and mobile phones and nanotube flat screen displays for computers and televisions. However, nanotubes have a ‘high aspect ratio’, which means they are pointy in form, and their needle-like shape closely resembles the properties of asbestos. While the danger of inhaling airborne asbestos fibres is well known, there has been little research on the toxicity of carbon nanotubes.
A study conducted at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre warned in March 2003 that the three different kinds of carbon nanotubes tested were more toxic than quartz dust (which has caused silicosis in miners and rail workers).
In April last year, Eva Oberdorster, an aquatic scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, revealed the results of a study in which fish were exposed to modest amounts of fullerenes, another product of nanotechnology commonly know as ‘buckyballs’. Buckyballs are spherical synthetic carbon molecules that experts believe offer exciting potential in the areas of drug delivery, cosmetics and environmental remediation.
The study results were alarming. After only 48-hours of exposure to buckyballs, the fish showed signs of severe brain damage, similar in nature to Alzheimer’s in humans. In addition, their livers were inflamed, revealing signs of a whole body response.
Buckyballs are currently uncommon due to high production costs. However, the price of producing them is dropping. The market for nanoparticles will soon approach one billion US dollars, yet specific government regulations and labelling requirements for nanoparticles are virtually non-existent across the world.
Tim Grogan is Vice President of Commercial Development and Licensing at leading Australian nano-pharmaceuticals company Starpharma Pty Ltd. Starpharma is in the process of marketing VivaGel, a topical microbicide with the potential to prevent the transmission of HIV and other STDs when applied to the vagina prior to sexual intercourse. It is the first drug product in the world based upon nanoscale molecules called dendrimers to enter human trials under the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Regulations.
Grogan believes that it is very difficult to have a meaningful general dialogue about the safety of nanoparticles and nanotechnology because it encompasses so many different areas and applications. “It’s difficult to establish what might be an appropriate overarching regulatory regime to deal with all uses and all types of exposure,” he says. “There’s no doubt that the pharmaceutical regulatory environment is extremely well equipped and highly developed to deal with the pharmaceutical applications of nanotechnology.”
The pharmaceuticals industry stands to benefit greatly from nanotechnology. Breaking a chunk of matter into nanoparticles increases its surface area by a factor of millions, making it more reactive (it absorbs/melts/ignites much more rapidly than at a larger scale). The hope is that nanotech’s greater absorption rate will lead to far more efficient dosages of drugs — being both targeted and chemically reactive.
Grogan believes nanotechnology has the potential to provide cures for diseases that have so far eluded us. He argues that this far outweighs the risk of something going horribly wrong, particularly when a rigorous regulatory framework is in place.
“There is a tendency for people to class nanotechnology as a new class of technology — like GM — but in actual fact it’s just a size dimension,” says Grogan. “It’s all about answering the question: how can this technology that I’m developing solve a real world commercial problem? Until you take it out into the world in a helpful way, nanotechnology will remain an empty abstract.”
Dr Peter Binks, CEO of Nanotechnology Victoria, agrees. “The reality is that there are no current uses of nanotechnology that pose a danger,” he says. “However there are nano-scale particles — nanotubes, dendrimers and the like — for which gaps in our knowledge and regulatory apparatus exist. We should certainly address those gaps before we produce large quantities of these materials, and there are efforts underway.”
Nanotechnology derives much of its immense power and potential from the fact that many elements and compounds behave quite differently at the nanoscale than they do at larger scales. Gold, at its tiniest size, becomes a potent catalyst that could be used to purge carbon monoxide from the atmosphere. Aluminium at the nanoscale can catalyse rocket fuel. Yet the anomalous nature inherent to nanotechnology is not acknowledged by current nanotech toxicity regulations, which rely on an understanding of the well-studied larger scale properties of the elements and compounds that constitute nanoparticles.
However, the commercial pipeline for nanotech products spans at least a decade, from research breakthrough to market entry. With such a lengthy maturation process, it seems unlikely that nanovations like buckyballs and carbon nanotubes will be released wholesale into the environment without extensive testing and the development of specialised regulatory safeguards. With that said, the chance of a nanotech-induced disaster, whether brought on by scientific incompetence or more nefarious human design, can never be completely banished.
But even Drexler doubts the seriousness of his theoretical brave ‘goo’ world.
In June 2004, Drexler published a paper in the journal Nanotechnology in which he admitted that self-replicating machines are not vital for large-scale molecular manufacture, and that nanotechnology-based fabrication can be non-biological and safe.
That is nanotech’s great promise — offering different solutions to old problems (disease, nutrition, productivity, and so on). To hear the likes of Bob Mehalso, Holger Becker and other nano leaders ruminate on the future of nanotechnology is enough to beguile even the most hard-bitten sceptic. There isn’t a hint of hubris in their attitude. They are very matter-of-fact. We need to proceed cautiously, testing and regulating and bringing everyone along. Societies need to be vigilant against seemingly minor forms of toxicity as much as the more far-fetched threats, like grey goo catastrophe.
But risk is not a reason to retreat from progress, merely a warning to keep our wits about us as we evolve.