Warwick University - Nanosystems Group

Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Call for Views: Nanotechnology

I would like to respond on behalf of the Warwick Nanosystems Group that has recently been formed as a common interest group within the faculty of science. The WNG current comprises (in alphabetical order):

Professor Derek Chetwynd (Civil and Mechanical Engineering)
Professor Nick Dale (Biology)
Professor Julian Gardner (Electrical & Mechanical Engineering)
Dr Chris McConville (Physics – to be confirmed)
Dr Julie Macpherson (Chemistry)
Professor Pat Unwin (Chemistry)

Initial views of WNG on new nanotechnology study

Our view is that the University should respond to this call and here is our contribution to the response of Warwick University:

We start with the historical observation that the word “nanotechnology” was coined independently in the 1980’s, first by Norio Taniguchi and then by K Eric Drexler. Of course, much of what they included has a much longer history. Taniguchi approached it from the viewpoint of a Precision Engineer, noting that novel techniques would be needed to meet technological demands. Essentially, his definition encompasses all technologies that involve either a critical dimension or a critical tolerance of below 100 nm. It includes macroscopic systems that generate motion of nanometric precision. It also, for example, includes large telescope mirrors, which are nanotechnological in the direction normal to their optical surface. Drexler approached it as a physicist and broadly defines nanotechnology as concerned with the manipulation of matter at the nanometre scale including atomic assembly, which implies for a sensible technology the use of ‘self assembling’ molecular structures. In the jargon sometimes used, the viewpoints correspond to ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ technologies. The Taniguchi definition is that used by, for example, the original DTI initiative (early 1990’s), the European Society for Precision Engineering and Nanotechnology and the EU Framework programmes, although they certainly take it to include molecular assembly.

We believe that there is an urgent need to define the terms of “nanotechnology” and “nanoscience”, probably into several more specific sub-topics that could be qualified by suitable adjectives or variant terms such as, say, “medical nanotechnology” or “nanometrology”. There are a number of different reasons for this need. First, the widely-used definition offered by Taniguchi is rather broad in nature and would include: all of chemistry, atomic and nuclear physics, molecular biology, and microelectronics. This has made the area covered so broad that it has devalued the currency and questions the credibility of the terms. Secondly, scientists and industrialists are increasingly using the terms in the hope that either their grant application will be timely and funded or that the stock market will buy nano stocks. The perceived value of nanotechnology stocks is encouraging the formation of many new companies using the nano prefix, which is of dubious legitimacy.

The second definition by Drexler is a more limiting one that excludes many technologies/tools currently considered to be nanotechnology, such as precision machining of objects (below 100 nm tolerances) but still includes most of molecular chemistry and biology. Used literally, it may become counterproductive by diminishing investment in instrumentation and other equipment that is itself macroscopic but that is critically important enabling technology for nano-manipulation.

It may be necessary to define related terms to nanotechnology as it currently includes picoscience and picotechnology, femtoscience and femtotechnology, attoscience and attotechnology.

The group should consider what a nanomaterial is as well as nanoscience. This is a term often used and again is confusing. If one considers a grain in a polycrystalline materials is 100 nm or less then many materials are nanotechnology. If one considers a nanoscale process, such as Debye length, mean free path, then many active and passive materials are included.

On the aspect of health issue and environmental risks, we feel that the current definition is so broad that it cannot be regulated beyond the level of a general ethical framework that would apply equally well to other areas of technology. The adoption of nanotechnological techniques or concepts for specific applications normally brings them within the scope of many of the already existing legislations on safety. Examples are asbestos dust, fine powers (fire hazard), GM foods, and radiation hazards. If the field is defined then it will be possible to identify any new risks associated with them. The recent publicity of a “grey goo” that will take over the world is, in our opinion, unjustified and is damaging to a potentially valuable industry for the UK.

We also feel that it would be useful to point out that some of the science of nanotechnololgy is not new, for example, Faraday’s work on metal nanoparticles almost two hundred years ago, is not so different from present science used to make metallic nanoparticles by wet chemistry routes that is attracting so much attention.

Finally, we would like you to invite the working group, Chaired by Professor Dowling, to come to Warwick (hosted by the Nanosystems Group) and discuss the issues pertaining to this emergent field.

Yours sincerely

S B Palmer
Warwick Nanosystems Group, UK