Oral Evidence – Prof. Flemming Besenbacher, Head of Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center at University of Aarhus, Denmark.

This evidence was taken by video conference at a meeting of the working group on 30th October 2003. It has been written up by the secretariat and sent to Prof. Besenbacher for comment. At the time of going to press no comments had been received.

Definition of nanoscience and nanotechnology

Prof. Besenbacher defined nanoscience and nanotechnology in terms of a timeframe. He stated that nanotechnology was in the future while nanoscience was taking place now. The term ‘nanotechnology’ is being used, predominantly in the USA, as a means to secure funding. He did note however that there are great developments taking in place in nanoscience which will filter through into nanotechnology, and estimated a timeframe of between 10 and 50 years for this process. He was keen to stress that nanoscience is not a new way of doing science, but merely a development of a long line of previous work.

Nanoscience involves the manipulation of matter at the atomic, molecular or supra-molecular level in order to make devices and structures with novel properties such as quantized conductance or much increased reactivity. The main tools to manipulate and interrogate matter on this scale are the scanning probe microscopes, which Prof. Besenbacher saw as instrumental in making nanoscience possible. He did point out however that while these techniques have been crucial in the development of nanoscience, they will never lead to nanotechnology as they not commercial.

Due to the extremely broad nature of nanoscience, Prof. Besenbacher was very keen to stress the need for an inter-disciplinary approach which he felt was crucial and would lead to many new possibilities. He pointed to a nanotechnology course at Aarhus University in Denmark where students are taught physics, chemistry, molecular biology and computer science in the first two years.

Future applications

When asked what his vision of nanotechnology was, Prof. Besenbacher stated catalysis, and noted that 90% of the products in the chemical industry used catalysis at some point in their manufacture. He saw nanotechnology as an enabler for the production of catalysts which will be much more efficient than those used today. Such technology may be used for example to dissociate hydrogen and oxygen molecules from water, with the hydrogen being stored in nanoporous material. Such advances, made possible through developments in nanoscience and technology would enable a hydrogen powered society in about 15 years.

In addition to energy, Prof. Besenbacher saw applications such as biosensors, drug delivery systems, and lab on a chip technology which would enable portable, rapid and cheaper screening for diseases. He also mentioned the development of bio-compatible materials for hip replacements for example.

Grey goo

When asked about the feasibility of building molecular machines, Prof. Besenbacher felt that these were best described by science fiction, however could not provide a solid argument why they would not be possible. He did feel that more effort should be spent trying to understand natural nano-bio-machines found in the body such as ribosome, rather than spend time on trying to build synthetic ones.


Prof. Besenbacher pointed out that with any technology comes risk, and felt that a small number of highly vocal groups were concentrating on the potential risks and worries associated with nanotechnology, whilst ignoring the benefits. His opinion was that when these groups are asked of the scientific basis to many of these worries, significant weaknesses in their position become apparent.

Social and ethical issues

Prof. Besenbacher was asked whether nanotechnology raised new social or ethical issues now, or would be likely to in 15-20 years. He drew attention to the non-critical attitude towards nanotechnology in his native Denmark, and while he felt it useful to discuss the social and ethical issues of nanotechnology, it was also important to consider the risks of current technology.