Nanotechnology is said to improve several aspects of our lives, e.g., the shelf-life of food or the quality of sunscreens, but its minute scale challenges the imagination and raises public concerns. Dr Jon Turney, participant in this week's British Council-supported debate on nanOpinion at The Guardian explains the controversy.
Since Galileo first looked at the heavens through a telescope, we have got used to the idea that science investigates things beyond our normal senses. The far universe, the subatomic world, the slow drift of continents and the fastest particle interactions are all accessible with the right instruments. But we still don't know how many things work in these strange realms.
What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnologies operate on scales that challenge the imagination. A nanometre is a billionth of a metre, about half the diameter of the DNA double helix. Defining a whole set of technologies by the fact that they are really, really, small also means the term covers a vast range of ideas, processes, and products.
When we talk about nanotechnology, you might think about things already on the market, like sunscreens, that use nanoparticles of titanium dioxide. The term might also call to mind ideas in development, like improved materials for solar panels or nanocapsules to deliver drugs to cancer cells. Or you might recall a host of scenarios – some from science fiction stories, some from non-fiction policy reports – about nanobots in the bloodstream, neural hook-ups for brain-to-brain communication, or machines for nano-assembly fabricating products quickly and cheaply.
What are the most common uses of nanotechnology?
One way to cut through this tangle of ideas is to observe that nanotechnology is most often used to fashion new materials, rather than in ultra-miniature devices. The 'nano' prefix means that the composition of materials is controlled on the atomic scale, or close to it. That in turn means the properties of what you are making can be fine-tuned.
For example, the micro particles of titanium dioxide in paint, and older sunscreens, are white. Nano particles, which still block UV rays, appear transparent. So nanotechnology can stop your skin from getting a white cast when you rub on sun protection factor 15 sunscreen.
What concerns exist?
Improved control over materials does not just mean better products. As with any new technology, there are concerns about unknown effects – and perhaps some extra ones, simply because nanotechnologies are so incredibly small.
This is not just because they seem insidious due to their invisibility. The properties of materials are influenced by different effects at very small scales, where quantum mechanical laws trump classical physics. And biological systems, in particular, may respond to nanomaterials in ways we don’t like.
How Europe is investing in this new technology
The European Commission is thinking hard about regulation of nanotechnology, and has been running lots of public engagement projects to discover what people think about the prospects for nanofutures, and what their concerns may be. They've made large investments in nanotech research and development, with a view to new products which may boost Europe’s economies in coming decades.
The project, in which the British Council is a partner, has been running for 18 months now, and is trying to fathom public opinion across Europe. Reaching lots of different people, many of whom haven’t thought about this stuff before, calls for a mixture of methods, from media coverage to a website (nanopinion.eu), along with public monitoring stations and discussion events.
What's public opinion like?
A round-table on food production held at The Guardian’s London offices on 9 October, for example, heard speculation about new flavours and textures in foods from nano-processed ingredients. The attendees also discussed nanocoatings to improve operation of manufacturing lines and prevent microbes getting a foothold in the machinery, and improved packaging for the finished products to improve shelf-life and alert consumers to spoilage.
At the same time, there were concerns about possible hazards from new products, especially when nanomaterials mean nanoparticles. Although people have probably been exposed to natural nanoparticles throughout evolution, eating them may be another matter altogether. Improving emulsification – when watery and oily liquids mix – so that low-fat margarine, for example, has a healthier composition, may be one simple improvement. But introducing completely new nanomaterials into packaging or even into food itself, invites more caution.
How we're gathering public opinion
How people feel about the gradual introduction of nanotechnologies like this into everyday use will be part of the final report from nanOpinion. Discussions will draw on repeated polling and responses gathered at live monitoring stations, which have been set up throughout Europe. One such station was organised today at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, enticing festival-goers to handle nanotech products and give their views on what our nanotech future could hold. It is a small part of a long process, but we hope it helps people begin to understand what developing technologies on these invisibly small scales might mean.
Dr Jon Turney is a science writer and editor based in Bristol. He is also editorial manager for nanOpinion, and you can follow him on Twitter.
What do you think of nanotechnology? Tell us in the comments or fill in the questionnaire on the nanOpinion website.