Socialist Worker

Nanotechnology: holy grail or grey goo?

Researcher Mark Baxendale looks behind the hype and the scare stories at 'the next big thing' in science, nanotechnology

Issue No. 1982

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

Capitalism, forever in search of updated means of production, has seized upon nanotechnology as a panacea for its present ills and invested huge amounts in research programmes. Nanotechnology is the control of the properties of matter by defining shape and size at the nanometre scale—billionths of a metre. Nanoscience is the study of physical phenomena at atomic and molecular scales.

The possibilities offered by nanotechnology and nanoscience have been hyped to attract investors to such an extent that it is almost guaranteed to be a disappointment. The short term benefits of nanotechnology will be very mundane or frivolous. The biggest private sector investors in nanoparticle research are cosmetics companies.

Nanotechnology has also generated serious concerns among anti-capitalist activists, echoing the debates around genetically modified foods. Some of this concern draws on Eric Drexler’s 1986 book, Engines of Creation, in which he predicted self-reproducing nanoscale machines.

The fear generated by this vision, popularised by Michael Crichton’s novel Prey, is that a self-reproducing molecular machine could be designed to consume life and reduce us all to “grey goo”.

In 2000, one informed commentator, Bill Joy, said that research into nanotechnology should stop immediately, as developments in the wrong hands could end life as we know it.

There is debate about whether the grey goo theory is a real possiblity. The nanoparticles being researched and used today are not self-reproducing and several hundred years of scientific endeavour have given us little insight into how to achieve self-reproduction.

Self-reproduction is a feature of biology, for example ribosome synthesises protein molecules according to a specification embedded in an organism’s DNA. But nature has had a “research and development” time of several billion years, and the prospect of us out-designing nature is remote.

However, there are pressing concerns about the health implications of nanoparticles in the body. Nanoparticles can pass through biological cell walls so the interaction with our bodies is at a much deeper level than for larger molecules such as asbestos that get trapped in the lungs.

Lobby groups have raised this issue—Greenpeace have called for 10 percent of funding to be dedicated to health studies. Such studies have commenced but there has been no sign of any research funding from New Labour yet.

We should insist on the highest safety standards for those working with free nanoparticles, but we should also do so for by far the greatest producer of carbon nanoparticles, namely the car engine. We should also insist on the highest standards of toxicology for those cosmetics companies already using nanoparticles.

Nanotechnology does promise to bring real benefits—especially in healthcare and the search for renewable energy sources. At the tiny scales nanoscience deals with, the properties of matter differ significantly from those of our familiar everyday world, opening up new possibilities for science and technology.

For example, the gold and silver used in jewellery is inert—it is stable and unreactive. But gold nanoparticles can speed up certain chemical reactions and silver nanoparticles kill bacteria.

Embedding nanoparticles in another material can also drastically alter its properties. For example, rubber can be strengthened by mixing in carbon nanoparticles and dispersed gold nanoparticles give glass a deep red colour.

These changes to the properties of rubber and glass have been known about for some time. What’s new is that through nanoscience we are beginning to understand why these changes take place.

New developments, particularly in microscopy, microelectronics and molecular biology, have provided tools for us to explore nature on the nanoscale.

The manufacture of components in microelectronics now takes places on such a small scale that the “top-down” processes (analogous to carving a statue out of rock) are converging with the “bottom-up” processes (analogous to building a house from individual bricks).

Scientists are now exploring the possibility of self-assembled electronic components using technologies borrowed from molecular biology.

The convergence of different fields of science as old boundaries break down at the nanoscale is an important aspect of nanoscience, and one of the joys of working in this field. Another example of this is the quantum dot—a device developed for telecommunications now used in the body to selectively kill off cancerous cells.

If we are to maximise the benefits of nanotechnology, we should not leave control of this field to the “band of warring brothers”, as Karl Marx called the capitalist classes of the world.

Social movements, including some of those involved in this work, can be a powerful force arguing that nanotechnology should be used to meet social needs.

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Sat 7 Jan 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1982
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