Nanotechnology: The Builder’s Final Frontier
By Dr Ahmed S. Khan
Addison, IL

 

The accomplishments of the 20th century are revolutionizing science and technology in the 21 st century. Researchers have gained ability to measure, manipulate and organize matter on nanoscale -- 1 to 100 billionths of a meter.

Dr Richard Smalley, 1996 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, had observed that Nanotechnology is the builder’s final frontier. At the nanoscale, physics, chemistry, material science, biology and engineering converge towards common principles, mechanisms and tools. This convergence of multiple-disciplines will lead to a significant impact on science, technology and society.

Historically, every new technological advance and innovation remakes the world. The time to remake the world has become shorter with every new technological revolution. The industrial revolution took almost two centuries to reshape the world, the electronics revolution around seventy years, the information revolution two decades, and innovations in biotechnology and nanotechnology to reshape the world could be just a matter of less than a decade. Historically the world was divided into the First World and the Third World, but the information revolution has led to the “digital-divide,” and advances in the nanotechnology, will further divide the world into the nano-haves and nono-havenots.

As the global economy continues to be transformed by new technology, an intense competition will grow for intellectual capital and intellectual property. Technology will continue to drive the global and domestic GDP. In 1997 the investment in nanotechnology stood at $430 million, rising to more than $9 billion in 2004. In 2000, an NSF report estimated that the global nanotechnology market would reach $1 trillion annually by 2015, and employ 2 million workers. It is estimated that by 2020 nanotechnology will be a $3 trillion a year global industry.

In 1960, prominent physicist, Richard Feynman , presented a visionary and prophetic lecture at a meeting of the American Physical Society entitled “There is plenty of room at the bottom,” in which he speculated the possibility and potential of nanosized materials. In 1974, the term nanotechnology was used for the first time by Nori Taniguchi in Tokyo, Japan at the International Conference on Production Engineering. However, it was not until the 1980s with the development of appropriated methods of fabrication of nanostructures that a notable increase in research activity occurred and a number of significant developments materialized.

Nanoparticles have been used for ages but the ability to understand the chemical and physical processes at the nanoscale have only been understood recently. Control and repeatability have been achieved; the knowledge base and applications have been refined.

At the nanoscale materials exhibit novel electronic, optical and magnetic properties, which have led to new applications of nanotechnology. Advances in nanoscience have enabled researchers to manipulate the behavior of a single cell, reverse disease, repair and grow human tissues. Nanotechnology is supplying improved services in the areas of energy, lighting, computing, printing, and water filtration. Nanotechnology innovations such as quantum dots, semi-conductor nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes, and nanoshells have led to the fabrication of electronics hardware devices using the “bottom-up” approach in contrast to present “top-down” approach.

Another major example of the application of nanotechnology is food science. Advances in nanotechnology have enabled food science to improve food safety and quality, food ingredient technologies, food processing, and food packaging.

Presently more than 800 products have been developed using nanotechnology. The development of nanotechnology requires multidisciplinary teams of highly trained researchers with backgrounds in biology, medicine, mathematics, physics, chemistry, material science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering. For innovative advances in nanotechnology, the researchers with expertise in multiple subsets of these disciplines play a pivotal role, since so many implications and fields are linked to a nano “micro-revolution.”

Education and training in nanotechnology require special laboratory facilities that can be quite expensive. The cost of creating and maintaining nanotechnology facilities is a major challenge for educational institutions. But by using innovative approaches such as inter-university collaboration, academia-industry partnerships, and web-based remote access to nano-fabrication facilities, educational institutions can overcome the cost-related challenges and thus help students and faculty to become innovative nanotechnology researchers.

Nanotechnology is remaking the world at an alarmingly fast pace, but presently nanoproducts are being developed in an environment of regulatory vacuum at national and international levels. The biggest question is how to deal with uncertainty and risk assessment? All new and emerging technologies pose new challenges and uncertainties; in the domains of science and technology these can be dealt with additional research, but in the realm of law and regulation, immediate answers are sought. Because uncertainty must be dealt with in regulation, and in the absence of straightforward regulations, methodologies are used to address uncertainty. One such methodology used for dealing with uncertainty in regulation is risk assessment.

As the convergence of multiple disciplines occurs in the form of nanotechnology discoveries and developments, the time to remake the world will become shorter, and thus the nanotechnology stakeholders will be relied upon to guide society by making future decisions for humane, just and responsible utilization of this “invisible” technology.

(Dr Ahmed S. Khan ( askhan@devry.edu ) is a senior professor in the College of Engineering & Information Sciences, DeVry University, Addison, Illinois 60101, USA. He is the author/editor of book “Nanotechnology: Ethical and Social Implications”)

 

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