Nanotechnology raises big hopes — and big fears
It's the speck of dirt on the foot of a flea, and within it may be locked the utopian dreams of a great beginning or the repressed fears of apocalyptic end times.
Nanotechnology — the super science of the modern age — is rocketing under the radar to transform how we live, work and play. It manipulates matter so small the naked eye can't see it and the mind's eye can't comprehend. It is buffing, burnishing and delivering an eye-popping, gee-whiz oomph to more than 800 products around the world, with more rolling off the production line each week.
And the consumer wave is only the beginning.
Around the world, researchers clad in snow-white, clean-room "bunny-suits" are breaking ground in nanomedicine, figuring out how to use the extremely small particles to heal wounds faster, deliver drugs with greater precision and create sci-fi sensors for eyeball ailments with atomic-level accuracy.
"We are working in a whole new dimension, at a scale where we are able to manipulate and take advantage of entirely new properties," Nils Petersen, director general of the Edmonton-based National Institute for Nanotechnology, told The Canadian Press.
"It's a revolutionary period. I don't think there's any way of putting the genie back in the bottle."
Found in everyday products
Look for nanoparticles and they're probably already in your house, your office, your closet and your makeup drawer.
Nanotechnology powers your iPod, your iPhone, your XBox 360, perhaps your laptop. It's in the kitchen, stripping away bacteria in some water purifiers and keeping food fresh longer in containers. It's in tin foil, plastic wrap, cutting boards and non-stick cookware. It's in some diet pills, shakes and supplements.
Next to the baby's crib there are nano-coated stuffed animals that repel mites and mould. There are anti-bacteria baby bottles and pacifiers. In the garage, space-age chemicals buff up your car wax, stop your windshield from fogging, peel snow off your tire rims and give your golf clubs, hockey sticks and tennis rackets the strength of steel and the weight of a wand.
Goodies tumble in from all points of the compass: stink-free socks from Taiwan; spray-on condoms and germ-resistant chopsticks from China; deep-penetrating skin cleanser from Canada; dirt-repelling windshields from Australia; more-breathable bed sheets from the United States; super bandages from Britain and graffiti-busting paint from Mexico.
It's a worldwide free-for-all worth $147 billion last year and expected to hit $1 trillion a decade from now.
The National Institute for Nanotechnology, funded by the governments of Canada and Alberta and by the University of Alberta, is the country's front-line command post in nano's new world order. It's a building seven storeys tall, anchored deep in the earth behind a car park on the western edge of the university campus.
Completed two years ago at a cost of $52 million, this box-like construction of concrete, glass and steel is engineered to ruthlessly exterminate the slightest vibration that could wreak havoc on the puny particles being scanned and sectioned in the glare of microscopes worth seven figures and the size of vending machines.
The building is cleaved internally by a ribbon of rubber on the ground floor, reducing the hum of elevators, heating and lighting equipment on one side of the building from impacting the lab equipment on the other.
Alberta a hub of nanotech research
If you talk in the hallway, you're shushed and shooed to prevent sound waves from penetrating the labs. Heat does not blow into the lab; it gently bleeds through overhead tubes. The temperature remains constant to prevent expansion and contraction.
There are 200-plus staffers from more than 30 countries. In one lab, Michael Woodside — who grew up in Ottawa designing magnetic levitation projects for high school science fairs — is peering through an inverted microscope at the base of an organized mini-mountain of mirrors, prism circuits and electronic light sensors.
Beside him is a glass-topped steamer trunk encasing a warren of screwed-down lenses and optical devices that direct a laser beam that peels apart three-dimensional structures of biological molecules such as DNA and proteins.
When proteins fold properly, everything is fine. When they don't, diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Alzheimer's can result. "By understanding how they fold up we can hope to develop new treatments," said Woodside, 37.
If you don't know nano, you're not alone.
Surveys in North America suggest seven out of 10 people know next to nothing about it, though public consciousness flares from time to time, such as when Michael Crichton's 2002 novel Prey came out. The book focused on rogue money-hungry techno-geeks inventing nanoparticled-robots that eventually turn on them with flesh-eating consequences.
In terms of pure science, nanotechnology is the new frontier in significant shrinkage.
Rules of behaviour change at small scales
Take a ruler, put your fingernail on a millimetre and try to imagine that millimetre divided into a thousand slices. Each slice is the upper limit of work at the nanoscale. Most of the work is at a level smaller than that. It's a scale where particles are so mind-bogglingly small they can only be manipulated using light, chemical reactions or even fluids. Stack 100,000 nanometres and you have the thickness of a piece of paper.
What makes it special is that at the level of one to 100 nanometres, things start going, well, a little wacko. Matter is no longer governed by the laws of classical physics, but by quantum mechanics.
Nanotechnology fundamentally alters the internal structure of compounds, giving them strength they never had before, allowing them to change colour, conduct electricity and get bent into handy tubes, spheres and quantum dots.
Nanoparticles themselves have been around forever, discovered in the microscopic flakes that coloured the stained glass of ancient Roman goblets and in the high windows of churches in the Middle Ages. Recent inventions such as the scanning tunnelling microscope made possible what iconic American physicist Richard Feynman publicly predicted in a speech that has become the nanotechnology call to arms.
It was Dec. 29, 1959, a year before John Kennedy became president, and four days after Sony brought the first transistor TV to market.
Feynman was in Pasadena, Calif., at the California Institute of Technology, speaking to the American Physical Society, daring researchers to dream. If Mother Nature could work at the nano scale — wrap the entire blueprint of life in a strand of DNA — why couldn't man?
"In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction," he said.
The scientists nodded, went forth, were fruitful, and the inventions multiplied. One breakthrough begat another until the big business of small became today's Wild West land rush.
Safety concerns persist
Techno-prospectors gallop off in all directions, with lawmakers in pursuit, trying to bring order to chaos. In Canada last summer, 15 nano experts urged the federal government to act now to assess nano's health and environmental risks. They haven't heard back.
In the United States, nano experts called for immediate safety tests for nano-ingredients in food, saying with no rules in place manufacturers are free to sprinkle in whatever they want.
But putting up regulatory fences is like plunging your fist into a bowl of mush. Regulators accustomed to beetling away in silos now must work as one to rein in a field that crosses multiple disciplines simultaneously — computing, engineering, biology, physics, chemistry.
What about ethics and privacy? What happens when cameras get so tiny you can barely see them, or marketers implant microscopic tracers in every item and sell to the highest bidder a list of what you bought when and where? If new technology can clean up the world's water supply, does anyone have the moral right to withhold it? And no one wants to imagine the future if al-Qaeda gets its mitts on this stuff.
"Everybody's really struggling with this," says Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser to the nanotechnology project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The centre, based in Washington, D.C., is a bridge between those who research policy and those who implement it. Maynard's team tracks nano-inventions, educates the public and, when necessary, sounds the alarm.
"There is stuff happening in the labs which we haven't seen in the marketplace at the moment, but when we do five or 10 years from now, it will completely revolutionize things," he says, sitting in his third-floor office, which is piled high with papers beneath prints of carbon nanotube electromicrographs from, he laughs, "the days when I used to be a scientist."
In photonics, for example, scientists are experimenting with light instead of electricity in circuits — a breakthrough that would revolutionize computers and take them to a whole new level of small.
"We're just beginning to flex our muscles when it comes to designing functional strands of DNA and actually making them from scratch, but we're getting pretty close to being able to do some very sophisticated things," Maynard said.
"You can imagine, as soon as you can play around with the code of life — what actually determines what a life form looks like — the potential there is absolutely mind-blowing."
So, he says, is the danger of messing up in hideous ways that would punish generations to come.
Maynard co-authored a study that suggests some forms of carbon nanotubes, the basic cylindrical building blocks of many nano structures, can behave like cancer-causing asbestos.
Is the study close to being definitive? No.
"There are some really big warning signs," Maynard said, "but we don't know enough yet to say, 'Yes, it definitely does behave like asbestos,' or 'No it doesn't.' There is a gap in our knowledge that definitely has to be filled." Maynard notes that one thing history does tell us is to expect the unexpected.
"No matter how hard you try to predict where the technology will go, something unpredictable will happen."
So what is this brave new world of nanotechnology? Is it the cloud-city idyll of The Jetsons or the skull-crunching fields of waste and death found in Terminator?