Imagine building materials as strong as steel at a fraction of the weight, and inexpensive solar cells printed onto almost any surface. Or smart medical treatments that target cancerous tumours with minimal side effects. You begin to scratch the surface of what nanotechnology can achieve. You also begin to appreciate why global spending on nanotechnology research and development continues to grow, exceeding an estimated $12 billion in 2006.
Yet, failure to take deliberate steps towards managing health and environmental threats associated with designing and building materials at an almost infinitesimal level—typically at a scale of 1-100 billionth of a metre—will increase business risk. There is plenty of sound scientific advice on how to tackle this. Some of the best was offered by the British Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. In 2004, it published the recommendations of a panel of experts established to explore the opportunities and uncertainties of nanotechnology. The report recognized the necessity for foresight in spotting nanotechnology’s potential pitfalls, and provided strategic guidance on how to avoid them.
An advisory group of Britain’s Council for Science and Technology that was convened recently questioned whether the British government is paying enough attention to the Royal Society’s recommendations. It warned that Britain was in danger of falling behind in what some call “the next industrial Revolution”.
Britain is not alone. Despite investing more than $1 billion annually in nanotechnology research, analysis by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies shows that the US government’s spending on risk research was only $11 million in 2005. This is a far cry from the $100 million minimum needed over the next two years for strategically targeted research that will lay a strong foundation for safe nanotechnology.
Until a few years ago, few had heard of it. Even now, awareness outside the scientific community is patchy at best. But government and industry leaders worldwide understand its scientific and economic potential. The nano-based products market is predicted to reach over $2.5 trillion by 2014, or about 15% of manufactured goods output.
At its heart, nanotechnology is about taking advantage of the increasing ability to manipulate materials at an incredibly small scale. The tip of your little finger is about 10 million nanometres wide. A nanometre-size particle is so small that placing one on your finger tip is the equivalent in scale to placing a pinhead on the moon. Nanotechnology offers an unprecedented new set of tools for reviving economies and improving every aspect of life, including health care, food, electronics, energy production and transportation.
The chief executive of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt, recently boasted to Fortune magazine, “Nanotechnology, we will own it.” But it is a crowded space filled with major companies like Dupont, IBM, BASF and Hewlett- Packard. A new report claims that China is moving up very rapidly in the field, almost up to the point of being a peer of the US and other top industrial countries. It is clear that the successful commercialization of nanotechnology means maximizing its benefits and minimizing its risks.
Without investing in research, Britain and countries like it are flying blind. It will be the companies and the economies that are far-sighted enough to navigate the pitfalls as well as exploit the breakthroughs that will dominate.
—Edited excerpts. Andrew D. Maynard is science adviser to the project on emerging nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org