Wednesday 29 July 2015

Nanotechnology needs ethical guidelines to guide the potential for good

The future is smaller than you may imagine

New science needs new rules

“There’s always been an element of science fiction to nanotechnology,” says John Crowley from UNESCO’s Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), and he is right. Perhaps more than in any other scientific field, work is going ahead to bring the wildest concepts into reality.

A nanometer is one billionth of a metre; approximately the length of three to six atoms placed side-by-side. By comparison, a human hair is between 50,000 and 100,000 nanometres wide. The science began in late 1959, when the legendary physicist, Richard Feynman raised the possibilities of working with materials at an atomic scale and the possibilities of building self replicating machines of that size.

It took decades to catch up with Feynman’s vision, but nanotechnology is no longer an experiment in the laboratory, it is in the real world. It is estimated that 800 manufacturer-identified nanotech products are publicly available, with new ones hitting the market at a pace of 3–4 per week.

The 18 members of COMEST are examining the technology and looking for an ethical framework that allows for new developments yet protects the public from potential dangers. “Nano-materials exist in nature, but manufacturing them is new to science and they have opened up some new horizons, but also fears and concerns,” says Crowley, who lists the main concerns as the speed of development and discovery, that it is being driven by “the wrong concerns, not in the interest of humanity, but military, who are the major investors in nano-research.”

Crowley is also worried that developing countries may be left behind, “that they may have access to the technology, if they can afford it, but be completely locked out from developing the science,” and worries over risk management.

Nanotech on the High Street

“Nano-materials are in the shops. You may be buying them without knowing it,” he warns. He gives several examples, including self cleaning concrete, a thin layer that coats the surface that uses sunlight to generate chemical processes that eliminate dirt from the surface.

“A brilliant idea, but what are the implications? Are these particles dangerous? How does aging affect the particles?” he asks. He also mentioned anti-odour socks, “they have particles of nano-silver, which is a very powerful biocide, it kills bacteria, properties that silver in its ordinary form doesn’t have. But the silver washes out over time and goes down the drain. What are the implications? What does it kill there? Does it end up in drinking water?”

“The concern is about a technology moving forward before there has been a systematic study of the possible impacts. It’s this lag between commercialization and sensible regulation which excites worries.”

COMEST has been looking at these questions for four years.  They see educating the public as a vital step and one of the messages is about risk management.  “There is no such thing as complete avoidance of any risk, but judgments have to be made and people have to be made accountable for those judgments,” says Crowley.

Are voluntary guidelines enough and should they be globally applicable? “Science is global and technology is increasingly global. To have radically different regulatory frameworks in differing parts of the world looks implausible,” Crowley observes, “The big question is, do we look at coordination or harmonization? It’s clear that harmonization, when it does appear, is a good idea but the search for it can be self defeating. Sometimes it is better to look for coordination, which can be achieved.”

World changing benefits

The potential of this technology is as expansive as a science fiction author’s imagination, but there are developments that are near to being viable. Crowley mentions three areas that would be world changing.

“Filtrations systems may not sound sexy, but if you’re one of the 2 billion without clean drinking water, this is huge. In principle, nano-scale filters could be developed that would get rid of all the impurities in water, not just biological impurities but contamination by heavy metals etc. There are existing applications, but they are expensive, the challenge is to bring the cost down. The filter would look the same, but would be 100 times more effective.

“The second area is energy. In principle, you can imagine systems where energy could be produced at the molecular level. This could be new kinds of fuel cells, new kinds of bio-fuels that wouldn’t require the acreage that existing systems need, with all the problems that causes. It could be a quantum leap in solar cell technology.

Some scientists feel that could happen, with regard to the effectiveness of solar panels. The impact of that would be incredible. Maybe next year, maybe in 10 years, the breakthrough will come. If so, it is possible that all the world’s energy could come from solar power in a few decades.

“The third is the most routine, but the potential is huge. This is in new materials, new alloys, plastics and polymers. New alloys for the aeronautical industry are already offering the potential for much lighter planes that will use less fuel.

There’s a lot of potential for carbon nano-tubes that are put together at the atomic level and are incredibly strong and light. Some moderately large objects have been made and they have properties that could be world changing. Basically, you wouldn’t need metals to make cars, planes, ships and so on. This is a whole new conception of what materials are and how they can be made.”

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