Nanotechnology - proceed with caution
I've just been reading some very interesting papers sent to me by Professor Vicki Stone from Herriot Watt University. Vicki is a professor of toxicology and a specialist in nanotechnology. I met her at a fascinating debate on nanotech hosted by the Guardian recently.
Nanotechnology is the manufacture of tiny particles for use in medicine, energy, metals, paint, clothes, plastics, sun-screens, electronics, water purification, foods and many other applications. There are, apparently, already over 1000 products or product lines that already use nanotechnology.
And when I say tiny particles, I really mean tiny. You could fit 30,000 nanotubes (one type of nanoparticles) across the width of a human hair. A red blood cell is a giant in comparison.
In theory nanotechnology holds out great promise.
For example, nanoparticles are being designed to travel into a cancerous cell and release the pharmaceuticals within the cell. This would make treatments more effective and significantly reduce side-effects. They are also being designed to enable better detection of life-threatening illnesses such as the clogging up of arteries.
In energy and climate change nanotechnology may lead to dramatic reductions in the cost of solar panels, significantly improve battery storage, and create safe ways of storing hydrogen (for energy storage and fuel cells). A step change in our ability to store energy from intermittent sources of renewable energy will, in my opinion, spell the death-knell for fossil fuels and conventional nuclear power.
But are we in danger of being blinded to the dangers of nanotechnology by the wonders it may deliver? The papers Vicki sent me suggest we need to proceed with more caution.
Research has suggested that nanotubes could get stuck in our lungs much in the way asbestos fibres do, with potentially the same consequence. Research into other types of nanoparticles (fullerenes) suggests that the jury is out on their safety because much more research is needed. Other research that looked into some of the chemicals that are used in nanoparticles (such as silver, gold, and titanium dioxide) suggested that we need to know much more about how these particles may impact our health because toxicity tends to increase as size decreases.
Whilst there is an increasing number of studies into the potential human health impacts of nanotechnology - with consequential understanding on how to make safer nanoparticles - there is very little understanding of the impacts on ecosystems from man-made nanoparticles pollution. Research into this area is desperately needed.
Because of the great benefits that nanotechnology could bring I think we need to proceed in developing them. But we need to proceed with much more caution.
In turn this suggests that we should focus in applications that could bring significant societal benefits. We could probably do without - at least for now - nanotech socks that don't smell, nanotech pet baskets, nanotech door knobs, nanotech golf clubs, nanotech fabric conditioner, etc, etc, etc.
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