By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
Imagine tiny robots, navigating your bloodstream, killing harmful microbes and cancer cells; imagine them now outside of your body making, atom by atom, products more versatile, resistant and durable than anything known today; Imagine that the technology behind these robots drastically and unprecedentedly revolutionizes the fields of manufacturing. Welcome to the world of nanotechnology.
Imagine tiny robots, too small even to be seen under a microscope, navigating your bloodstream, killing harmful microbes and cancer cells; imagine them now outside of your body making, atom by atom, products more versatile, resistant and durable than anything known today; Imagine that the technology behind these robots drastically and unprecedentedly revolutionizes the fields of manufacturing, artificial intelligence, food production and processing, and even space travel. Now imagine these little machines making copies of themselves, which create more copies of themselves, and so on ... indefinitely? Welcome to the world of nanotechnology.
Some will say that the scenario described above is science fiction and that it will be nothing more than a dream of inept futures. But a growing number of scientists, companies and governments are betting on the nanotech future.
Nanotechnology promises (or threatens) to change the world economy and human life more radically than the industrial revolution. Its proponents claim that it will help fight environmental pollution, eliminate disease, and feed the world's hungry, among countless other benefits. But critics and skeptics of this new technology fear it could unleash unimaginable risks to the environment and human health.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on the nanometer scale. To give you a sense of proportion:
* A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter.
* Ten hydrogen atoms in single file make one nanometer.
* The double helix of the DNA molecule is 2.5 nanometers wide.
* A red cell in human blood has a diameter of 5,000 nanometers. Sixteen of them in a single file (80 thousand nanometers) are equivalent to the thickness of a human hair.
* Some individual components of the transistors that the Intel company makes are 130 nanometers, so 42 million transistors fit on each Pentium 4 chip.
There are no self-replicating nanorobots yet - and some experts say there never will be. But nanotechnology is already a reality and an ever-growing economic activity. More than 100 firms make nanoparticles, pieces of substances or elements, such as gold or carbon, sliced into nano-sized fragments (900 million of these fit on the head of a pin). Nanoparticles can be obtained in powder form or in liquid solution, and are already being used in hundreds of products, including industrial lubricants, soaps, golf balls, car waxes, tires, television screens, electronic chips, cell phones, cosmetics, sunscreen, glasses, clothing (Eddie Bauer's Nanotex garments), and even contraceptives.
And what is special about nanoparticles? Its size and nothing else. When materials are fragmented down to the nanoscale, their physical properties change radically. Below the 50 nanometer scale, the laws of classical physics that we associate with the macro-objects that we see and touch in our daily lives no longer have applicability, and are replaced by those of quantum physics. Characteristics such as color, hardness, chemical reactivity, and electrical conductivity can vary between nanoscale objects and larger objects, even though they are both made of the same substance. A substance that is yellow can turn red when sliced into pieces only a few nanometers thick, just like gold. Also, a substance that is relatively chemically and electrically inert can become highly chemically reactive and electrically conductive at the nano level.
An example of this is titanium dioxide, which is the active ingredient in sun cream, as it prevents the passage of ultraviolet rays. This substance is white but when its particles are nanoscale it becomes transparent, but still maintaining its ability to block ultraviolet light. Clear sunscreen made with titanium dioxide nanoparticles is already on the market.
On the other hand, carbon shows very interesting properties at the nano level. Scientists are determined to develop practical applications for nanotubes, which are cylindrical shaped carbon molecules. Nanotubes are a hundred times stronger than steel and six times lighter, and they also conduct electrical currents better than copper. The potential applications of this novel material for medicine, manufacturing and computers could be practically limitless.
The United States government currently spends a billion dollars annually on the development of nanotechnology, such an amount of public funds is not used in a scientific endeavor since the Apollo space program. And since its founding in 2000, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (www.nano.gov/) oversees federal funding for everything prefixed with "nano." State governments, for their part, invest about $ 400 million a year, competing to become the "valley of silicone" of nanotechnology. On the private side, virtually all Fortune 500 companies have investments in nanotechnology, including IBM, Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical, Xerox, Eli Lilly, Dupont, and 3M.
Competitors from the United States are not asleep. The Japanese companies Sony, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Toshiba, and the European Philips, L'Oreal and Nestlé, among many others, are already fully involved in the nanotechnology race. At least 35 countries have state investments in this field, including Mexico, Argentina and China.
The greatness of the small
Nanotechnology has been discussed in scientific circles at least since 1959, when physicist Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize, 1965) proposed the manipulation of individual atoms in a lecture entitled "There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom." In 1986 the scientist Eric Drexler published The Engines of Creation, still considered the bible of nanotechnologists today.
Nanotechnologists are already looking at horizons beyond the mass production of nanoparticles and contemplating even more ambitious applications. Some of them are preparing to manufacture nano-scale robots (nanobots) that will perform an infinite number of tasks, including self-replication.
According to inventor Ray Kurzweil (www.kurzweiltech.com/), "Food, clothing, diamond rings and buildings could all be self-assembling molecule by molecule. Any type of product could be instantly created when and where we need it. In fact, the The world could self-reassemble to cater for our changing needs, wants, and fantasies.By the end of the 21st century, nanotechnology would allow objects, such as furniture, buildings, clothing, even people, to change their appearance and other characteristics - essentially change into something else - into a second fraction."
Present and future applications
Medicine and health
According to the National Science Foundation of the United States, by 2015 half of pharmaceutical production will depend on nanotechnology.
Medical applications for nanotechnology currently in development include: more precise characterization of a patient's genetic profile, new methods of delivering drugs directly to specific organs and tissues, surgical access to previously inaccessible parts of the body, artificial tissues and organs that are not rejected by the body, "smart" biomaterials for artificial limbs, and biosensors for early disease detection, among many other applications.
Some proponents of nanotechnology, such as inventor Ray Kurzweil, argue that before the end of the first half of this century: “Nanobots introduced into our bloodstream could supplement our immune system, and seek out and destroy pathogens, cancer cells, and other disease-causing agents. diseases". Kurzweil adds that "We can rebuild any or all of our organs and systems, and do it at the cellular level."
Biological systems, like our kidneys and mangrove forests, filter water and purify it. Geologist Stephen Gillett of the University of Nevada argues that nanotechnology can be used to purify water by mimicking biological systems, thereby amplifying the efficacy of membrane technologies such as reverse osmosis and electrodialysis.
KX Industries offers filters with antiviral and antibacterial nanotechnology membranes. The idea is that the pores in these membranes are so tiny that they can filter even the smallest microbes. The Argonide company manufactures aluminum nanofibers, whose positive electrical charge attracts negatively charged germs. There are also photocatalytic materials that subject filtered water to ultraviolet rays, which could destroy industrial solvents, pesticides, and bacteria.
Zvi Yaniv, president of Applied Nanotechnology, says that new materials can be created with polymers that self-assemble into membranes. His firm collaborates with a Japanese partner by making nanometric columns of titanium oxide, which would serve as powerful photocatalysts. Another technology from his company is based on sensors made of carbon nanotubes coated by enzymes that react in the presence of contaminants.
The bulk of the US government's investment in nanotechnology is directed at the military. In 2002 the Army and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (http://web.mit.edu/isn/). The ultimate goal of this project is to create a light, comfortable and bulletproof uniform, which would also multiply the soldier's combat capabilities. Today the infantryman typically carries 100 to 140 pounds of equipment, but with advances in nano-miniaturization the uniform could combine bullet protection, medical monitoring, and communications in one integrated system. The rainproof poncho could be replaced by a nano-cape that would make all the soldier's gear waterproof.
Other military-type nano-advancements currently being developed include: nano-camouflage to render combatants invisible on the battlefield; miniaturized sensors for the detection of chemical or biological weapons; an "exoskeleton" that would give the soldier superhuman capabilities; ammunition and missiles made of carbon nanotubes; and much more.
Nanotechnology could transform space exploration in fundamental ways. There is already talk of using it to make propulsion fuels, protective coatings and structural materials that are lighter, more efficient and more powerful than anything known today. According to visionary Eric Drexler, considered the guru of nanotechnology, ultra-light and comfortable spacesuits could be made just one or two millimeters thick.
The spacecraft could be covered on the outside with nanosensors and nanorobots that would constantly monitor their structural integrity and - if necessary - perform repairs automatically without requiring the attention of the crew.
For several decades there has been talk of establishing a space elevator in orbit above the earth, which could lift cargoes of several tons from some point on the equator to outer space. If built and operated, this could facilitate and accelerate the colonization of space in this century. In June 2004, the third international conference to discuss this proposal was held in Washington DC (www.isr.us/Spaceelevatorconference/), and there is a company, The LiftPort Group (www.liftport.com/), dedicated to developing the technologies. needed to make the elevator. Research and development in super-resistant nanotubes could make this cosmic elevator a reality much sooner than originally envisioned.
"A handful of products and food supplements containing nano-scale additives, without specifying it on the label, are already on the shelves of supermarkets," announces the ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org/), a non-profit organization that investigates the impacts of new technologies.
Most of the largest food and beverage companies in the world - including Unilever, Nestlé, and Kraft - are developing nano-scale technologies to design, process, package, and deliver food and nutrients. Kraft has a food nanotechnology laboratory and in 2000 founded the NanoteK consortium, through which it collaborates with 15 universities and several federal laboratories. This consortium is developing personalized foods that recognize the nutritional and health profile of the consumer, as well as wrappers and packaging that can detect and alter the nutritional deficiencies of the individual.
They also set out to invent drinks with flavors and colors encased in nanocapsules that would open only in response to some external stimulus, such as a specific microwave frequency. A thirsty consumer would buy a can of a colorless, tasteless liquid, choose his favorite color and flavor, and microwave them at a particular frequency. Nanocapsules containing other colors or flavors would be kept closed.
Another project is the creation of casings with nanosensors capable of detecting substances in parts per trillion, which would allow the consumer to know, for example, if a cut of meat is contaminated with bacteria.
The new agro nanotechnology
Agrochemical companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer Cropscience are developing nanoencapsulated pesticides. Such nanocapsules could be "programmed" to open in response to an external stimulus, which could be contact with water, a rise in temperature, a change in Ph, contact with a particular substance or protein, exposure to a magnetic field. , or upon receiving a "command" transmitted by ultrasound. These advances are expected to improve the precision in the application of agrochemicals and reduce their environmental impact.
"All the corporations that dominate the global business of transgenics are investing in nanotechnology," said Silvia Ribeiro, of the ETC Group, in an article published in the Mexican newspaper The Day in 2004. "Monsanto has an agreement with the nanotechnology company Flamel to develop its Roundup herbicide in a new formulation in nanocapsules ... Pharmacia (now part of Pfizer), has patents to manufacture slow-release nanocapsules used in 'biological agents such as drugs, insecticides , fungicides, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers'. Syngenta patented Zeon technology, 250 nanometer microcapsules that release the pesticides they contain on contact with the leaves. They are already on sale with the Karate insecticide, for use in rice, peppers, tomatoes and corn. Syngenta also has a patent on a nanocapsule that releases its contents on contact with the stomach of certain insects. "
The United States Department of Agriculture is developing a "Smart Field System" with wireless nanosensors that would be used on farms to collect data on factors such as temperature, humidity, acidity in soils or the presence of pests or pathogens, and transmit them to the farmer. On the other hand, the firm Intel is designing "proactive computing" systems for agricultural use, which would allow nanosensors to anticipate the needs of the farmer and act "on their own."
According to the ETC Group, there is "a wide spectrum of research and development activities, ranging from atomically modified seeds, nano sensors for precision agriculture, plants designed to produce metallic nano particles, nano vaccines for fish farms, nano codes bars to monitor and control grocery products and much more. "
And the risks?
Can nanoparticles affect human health? As early as 2001 scientists at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University in the United States warned that nanoparticles accumulate in the livers of laboratory animals. This means that these particles can travel up the food chain and accumulate in this way in the tissues of animals and humans. Two years later, a study published in the scientific journal Nature showed that nanoparticles can be absorbed by earthworms and other soil organisms.
Research carried out by the French immunologist Silvana Fiorito shows that cells react to the entry of foreign particles if they are on a micrometric scale (a micrometer is one thousand nanometers or one thousandth of a millimeter) but they do not react to nanometric particles even if they are of the same substance. "The ability to evade the immune system may be desirable to deliver drugs, but what happens when uninvited nanoparticles knock on the door?" Warns the ETC Group. Will nanoparticles be the asbestos of the 21st century?
In 2005, several worrying information about the impacts of nanoparticles came to light:
* The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the United States announced that they found significant damage to the DNA of the heart and arteries of rats that were exposed to carbon nanotubes.
* In March, President Bush's Advisory Council on Science and Technology released a lengthy report on nanotechnology that raises serious questions. The document cautions that consumers are already exposed to nanoparticles in products like sunscreen and baby lotion, but that virtually no research is being done to find out how safe they are, and that the nano-industry is practically in the dust and without any regulation.
* A NASA study determined that the injection of carbon nanotubes caused significant damage to the lungs of mice. The researchers said the injected dose was equivalent to 17 days of exposure for a worker in a nanofactory.
* Scientists at the University of Rochester reported that rabbits that inhaled carbon nanospheres showed an increased susceptibility to forming blood clots.
* At the meeting of the United States Chemical Association, a report was presented showing that carbon nanoparticles dissolve in water, in contradiction to what was believed, and that even in very small concentrations they are toxic to soil bacteria.
According to the ETC Group, "In years to come, scientists will create new elements and perhaps restructure and combine elements in ways that we cannot imagine today. The potential socio-economic and environmental implications of new forms of matter-materials never before seen in the world are impossible to calculate. Earth."
"Governments and industry have allowed nano-products to enter the market in the absence of debate and supervision by regulatory authorities," said Hope Shand, of the ETC Group, in an interview with the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día. "About 475 Products with invisible, nanoscale particles, without regulation or labeling, are already commercially available - but no government has developed a regulatory regime to address the nanoscale issue. "
Shand added that "there are only a handful of toxicological studies on artificial nanoparticles, but it appears that nanoparticles as such are more toxic than larger versions of the same compound due to their mobility and increased reactivity."
On the other hand, the Foresight Institute (www.foresight.org/), which favors nanotechnology, does not share the fears of the ETC Group and other sectors. Christine Peterson, its vice president, argues that nanoparticles have not been adequately defined and that it is therefore premature to impose safety regulations and protocols. "What exactly is a nanoparticle? It depends on how you define it," Peterson said in an interview with El Nuevo Día. "Many natural substances, as well as chemical substances and additives in our food that are used for a long time, have particles of nano size. "
According to her, if nanoparticles are not properly defined, any regulation will be problematic. He noted that there are several institutions in the United States and internationally addressing the issue, including the American National Standards Institute, the International Standards Organization, and the International Accreditation Forum.
What if self-replicating nanobots reproduce out of control? In that case we would face dangers and forms of environmental pollution that are impossible to imagine today. As early as 1991 author Jerry Mander, a favorite of environmental readers and opponents of neoliberal globalization, warned of the risks of nanotechnology in his book In the Absence of the Sacred . Bill Joy, senior scientist at Sun Microsystems Corporation, expressed concern about the potential dangers of this technology in an essay titled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," published in Technophile magazine. Wired in 2000.
According to Joy, "The technologies of the 21st century - genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) - are so powerful that they can lead to new types of abuse and accidents." In his essay, he argues that we have not yet realized that these three technologies "represent a different threat from other technologies that have come before", since nanobots and transgenic organisms can self-replicate. “A bomb can only go off once. But one bot can turn into many, and quickly get out of control. "
Mooney argues that “In a bionic world where nanotechnology and biotechnology merge, we will see nanoscale biocomputers and biosensors capable of monitoring everything from plant growth regulators to political assemblies… What if nanobots cannot be stopped ? What implications does this have for military plans and terrorism, especially state terrorism? The very power of nanotechnology to make all things physical, visible and invisible, inexpensively and inexhaustibly, is also the greatest threat it carries. "
And on top of this, there are risks that are social and political in nature. Nanotechnology is headed the same way as biotechnology when it comes to patenting materials from nature. Says Mark Lemley of Stanford University that "patents will cast a much larger shadow on nanotechnology than they do on any other science at a similar stage of development." As early as 1964, Glenn Seaborg, Nobel Laureate in Physics, set a disturbing precedent by patenting two elements in the periodic table: Americium (95) and Curium (96). The race for nanopatents is already in full swing: between 2000 and 2003, the increase in nanotechnology patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office increased 50 percent, reaching 8,630 in 2003.
Ribeiro (La Jornada, 9/30/05) compiled the following examples of nanopatents:
* In China, researcher Yang Mengjun, obtained 900 patents on herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine, claiming nanotechnological formulations.
* Charles Liebner of Harvard University obtained a patent (which he exclusively licensed to Nanosys Inc.) on metal oxide nanrods. The patent coverage covers oxides not only of a metal, but of 33 elements of the periodic table (approximately one third of the total), which cover 11 of the 18 existing groups of elements. These bars have uses in multiple industries, including biomedical, and have been identified by several patent attorneys as one of the 10 key patents that will determine the development of the nanotechnology industry.
* The University of Kansas obtained a patent for other nanotechnological processes that gives it exclusive use in the pharmaceutical, food, chemical, electronics, catalyst, polymer, pesticide, explosives and coatings industries.
"Never before have we witnessed such a vast use of a monopolistic appropriation instrument such as nanotechnology patents," notes Ribeiro. "Those who believe that nanotechnology may have beneficial uses, such as hypothetical energy and resource savings, or medical applications, or even more, illusory, that 'it will benefit the poor', should rethink it in light of this scenario. Suffice it to see how transnational pharmaceutical companies behave with public health needs, especially in the third world, controlling patents that do not cover even a nanofraction of their scope. "
No activist campaign will stop nanotechnology, it is too late for that. It will be used for better or for worse and it will revolutionize all aspects of the world economy and human life, whether we like it or not.
So what can responsible citizens concerned about the adverse impacts that this technology may have on human health and the environment? "Civil society and social movements must engage in a broad debate about nanotechnology and its multiple economic, environmental and health implications," Shand advised. "Governments and industry should not make the mistake of confining discussions to meetings of 'experts' - or limiting the discussion strictly to the health and safety aspects of nanotechnology - the social and economic aspects must also be addressed."
But the story does not end here, as the convergence of technologies is approaching us. Governments and companies that are developing cutting-edge technologies are preparing to combine nanotechnology with biotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics, and lead us to a cyber future that we cannot imagine today. But that would be a topic for another article.
* Ruiz Marrero directs the Puerto Rico biosafety project (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/) and is the author of the book "transgenic ballad: biotechnology, globalization and the clash of paradigms". He is also the creator of the website, making a point on another blog (http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com/)