Submission to Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering by Dr Jason Wiggins. Nanotechnology Programme Manager of Oxford University at Begbroke Science Park,UK.
Submission to the Royal Society Nanotechnology Study
As the Nanotechnology Programme Manager for Oxford University my interest covers university based research, commercialisation of nanotechnology research and the public perception of nanotechnology. I am based at the Begbroke Science Park near Oxford and my role provides insight into the developing academic research in nanotechnology and how the technology transfer allows nanotechnology to be adopted in the commercial environment.
Nanotechnology is ill defined. There is little agreement on what should be realistically included under this banner. Whilst it is unlikely that a single report can change this, there is an opportunity to define several subsections that could achieve a broad support. The number of reduced dimensions can define different physical configurations and these have different issues. The first is materials that have a single reduced dimension but are otherwise large. Examples of this technology include thin films and coating technologies. The second area is where two dimensions are reduced leading to nanofibres or nanotubes. Examples of this technology include carbon nanotubes. The final area has all reduced dimensions. Examples of this area include nanoparticles and quantum dots. These three areas have very different physical properties and associated issues. If they can be separated, it could allow greater clarity in future discussions.
Nanotechnology is primarily an enabling technology. This feature will allow it to be incorporated into almost any product that is currently on the market. It is important to note that the first products to incorporate nanotechnology will merely be evolution of existing products. Revolutionary new products and markets are still some way off. The first uses of nanotechnology are directly replacing existing materials to make products stronger, cheaper or lighter. This trend is likely to continue, and in respect of carbon fibre, is already underway. Product improvement using nanotechnology in this fashion is going to happen in the immediate timeframe.
Applications that currently use a fine powder and depend on surface effects will be the next area that nanotechnology is used in. Typical applications include catalytic reactions and sunscreen. Adoption of this area of nanotechnology is likely in the next 12-48 months by the market leaders.
Revolutionary applications, and potentially including medical applications, are going to have a longer time to market. Significant research is being undertaken in laboratories but there is a lead time on product development of these ideas. The first to market will be in at least 5 years, most further developments should be expected over a decade long cycle.
It is almost certain that nanotechnology has the potential to have a large impact on the world. It is in the area of predicting the effects of nanotechnology that it is vital to have accurate definitions. Each area of nanotechnology will have different issues and these will need to be considered separately.
Type One: Thin Films.
Thin films are already applied to many materials for beneficial effects. As better and more diverse coatings are developed, the number of thin film coated materials will expand. These will probably have a significant commercial impact but will warrant little toxicology or health and safety study. This is due to the fact that the films are supported by a macro-scale substrate and can be considered as conventional materials. It may be of significant long-term benefit if such products do not carry the “nano” label.
Type Two: Nanoscale Fibres.
Products incorporating nanoscale fibres, wires or tubes will become the first mass market nanotechnology products. If these products are well marketed and are beneficial to consumers, the general public will be able to see the potential benefits of a wider introduction of nanotechnology.
Type Three: Nanoparticles.
The nature of nanoparticles defines them to be of a similar size to biological systems. The potential health and medical benefits are extremely large and they could consequently have a large impact on industry and society. Care will have to be taken to ensure that the health and safety regulations maintain parity with nanotechnology development to maintain the safety of personnel working in this field and of the wider general public.
Ethical and Social Implications
There is only one area of nanotechnology that could have potential ethical issues. The adoption of nanotechnology by the life scientists may need careful consideration. However many areas of research involving the life sciences already have ethical guidelines in place. There should be no reason why these existing guidelines cannot be expanded, if required, to cover the new research fields. As an example, nanotechnology can be considered as just another tool for genetic manipulation.
Recent press reports concerning “grey-goo” highlight the need for rational balanced reporting and public representation. Recent history with regard to GM products clearly indicates the need for a pro-active stance on public perception. The press will need to be presented with some positive “sound bites” that can be widely used. It may be beneficial to consider announcing specific regulation, restriction or even legislation with regard to self replicating machines. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, no such machine exists outside of science fiction and such a move could alleviate public concerns without impacting on any scientific research.
It seems unlikely that additional legislation is required for general investigations and developments of nanotechnology. There may be some genuine health and safety issues associated with nanotechnology. At this point, it would be beneficial if funds were made available for a formal study into any potential health and safety issues. Such work should be made widely known to the general publicly public. It should be seen that work is on going in this area and, importantly, that it is free of any commercial pressure. It would probably then be best practise to ensure that any health and safety issues relating to nanotechnology are covered by and enforced by the HSE. The HSE should issue guidelines and codes of conduct for working with nanotechnology to ensure the safety of the public and especially the scientific community that works in this field.