Oral evidence – Dr Doug Burgess, Research director, Emerging and underpinning technologies, Research acquisition organisation, Ministry of defence

This evidence was taken at a meeting of the working group on 19 November 2003. It has been written up by the secretariat and approved by Dr. Burgess

After introductions around the table, Dr Burgess defined nanotechnology as manufacturing at the convergence of physics, chemistry and biology. He saw the nanotechnology as potentially having the following advantages: lower through life management costs, less waste, rapid prototyping, quicker take-up of new capability, faster response to changing threats.

Although the interest in nanotechnology is primarily in its effect on wealth creation, it could be of advantage to planetary resources. In terms of threats, advanced capability could be made more readily available to adversaries at lower cost. Also, it presented the threat of development of new chemical and biological weapons. At the same time, nanotechnology is not needed to create a terrorist incident – one need look no further than smallpox. .

Dr Burgess was asked to what extent he thought nanotechnology is really new. He said that much of nanotechnology is relabelling of science in established disciplines such as chemistry. However, it is also a good label by which to recognize that certain aspects of science and technology have come together. Dr Burgess thought that nanotechnology was not a disruptive technology, but part of an evolutionary trend towards understanding and controlling matter at a smaller and smaller scale.

When asked about MOD funding of nanotechnology, Dr Burgess pointed out that 98%, if not 99%, of R&D relevant to defence is funded from elsewhere. Whilst 50 years ago the microelectronics industry was funded largely by MOD, this is not true of the situation nowadays. The MOD buys capacity, not technology. Dr Burgess said that the MoD budget is £1million, two thirds of which is into the Interdisciplinary Research Centres, the rest into direct military-relevant funding. The MOD has limited resources and therefore access to networks such as the IRCs is vital, and enables the MOD to continue its ‘watching brief’ on nanotechnology.

In terms of MOD investment in nanotechnology, it needed focus on power, explosives, self-repairing materials, improved weapons, superior information systems, all leading to less collateral damage. Medical applications that were of interest were vaccines, wound repair, skin protection, drug antidotes and ‘lab on a chip’ chemical and biological agent sensors.

In terms of use of nanomaterials in defence, nanoparticles are used in 120mm tank rounds, and nanotubes form part of radar absorbing and antistatic materials, and as reinforcement in polymer composites.

Dr Burgess was asked about the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, which he thought was a good idea, bringing a wide range of research together. The UK hopes to collaborate with the institute at some point, as many of the issues faced by the military in both countries are the same, for example, the ability for a soldier to operate on the battlefield for days – at present the batteries required to power equipment for such a length of time are too heavy.

Dr Burgess was asked about the large investment in nanotechnologies by the Department of Defence in the USA. Dr Burgess though that they were not misguided in putting a large amount of money into nanotechnology. Although they have a larger budget than the MOD, they are less well-organised.

In terms of the potential for nanotechnology to be dual-use, Dr Burgess said that the MOD needed to keep an eye on the rate of progress in nanotechnology to identify military applications and possible misuses.

Dr Burgess was asked if the MOD would commercialise its research. He said that Qinetiq receives 80% of MOD funding, and aims to industrialise its research. Dstl – the defence science and technology laboratory - need to industrialise where this is appropriate for the benefit of the country.

Dr Burgess highlighted that, whilst nanotechnology is an exciting set of technological developments, it is only one contributory factor in state defence. Appropriate infrastructure and good communications are of major importance. Specific nanotechnologies will be particularly important to MoD, rather than for example general chemicals that are not military-specific.

The question of regulation was raised. Using the example of nanocomposites, Dr Burgess said that he did not believe nanotechnologies should be subjected to a stricter regime that the typical regulations for particles of a similar small size. As for disposal, nanomaterials may have different properties and these should be taken into account when designing regimes for disposal.