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#772 - The Revolution, Part 1, 25-Jun-2003

Published August 12, 2003

A revolution is occurring in science and technology -- a
revolution so profound that it is difficult to comprehend.
There has been hardly any discussion of these events in the
mass media, so this revolution is occurring entirely without
public discussion or debate.

The revolution does not stem from computers or biotechnology or
cognitive science or nanotechnology. It stems from the
convergence of these four technologies into something that the
National Science Foundation is calling NBIC
(nano-bio-info-cogno) science,[1] which critics are calling The
Little BANG (bits, atoms, neurons, and genes)[2].

In this series, we will explore the meaning of this profound
revolution from the viewpoint of the environment, human health,
and the future of democratic societies. We begin by describing
the least well-known of these four technologies --nanotechnology, or
nanotech for short.

Nanotech is the science and engineering of materials and
machines so small that they are invisible to the naked eye.
Their tiny size is their advantage. When President Clinton
announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2000
he spoke of a computer no bigger than a sugar cube holding the
contents of the Library of Congress, sensors so small they
could motor through your arteries to detect cancers at an early
stage, and exotic new materials 10 times as strong as steel but
a fraction of the weight.

The National Nanotech Initiative (NNI) is located inside the
National Science Foundation (NSF), the nation's most
prestigious scientific organization, and the Clinton budget
earmarked a hefty $497 million for the NNI in 2000, which
President Bush raised to $604 million in 2002 and $710 million
in 2003.[3]

Nanotech is now the third largest federal research project,
just below the war on cancer and the star wars missile defense
shield. (See the NNI web site at www.nano.gov.) The largest
federal research subsidy for nanotech ($221 million) goes to
the NSF itself and the second-largest ($201 million) to the
Department of Defense.[3]

Nanotech is named for the nanometer, a unit of measure, a
billionth of a meter, one one-thousandth of a micrometer. The
Oxford English Dictionary defines nanotechnology as "the branch
of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less
than 100 nanometres, esp. the manipulation of individual atoms
and molecules." Nanotech deals with goings on in the world
where a typical grain of sand is huge (a million nanometers in
diameter). A human hair is 200,000 nanometers thick. A red
blood cell spans 10,000 nanometers. A virus measures 100
nanometers across, and the smallest atom (hydrogen) spans 0.1
nanometers.

At the nano scale, familiar materials act in unexpected and
unpredictable ways. At the nano scale, there may be changes in
a substance's elasticity, strength, and color, its tolerance of
temperature and pressure and its ability to conduct
electricity. So nano scientists and engineers are discovering
new laws of behavior along with new commercial possibilities.
[4, pg. 48]

For example, reduced to nano particles, some metals become
translucent, like zinc oxide which is normally white but
becomes invisible when nano-ized. [5, pg. 35] Nano zinc oxide
is already available commercially in new sunscreen ointments,
which are needed now more than ever because CFCs, the chemicals
that gave us air conditioning, damaged the Earth's ozone
shield, increasing the dangers of sunburn and skin cancer,
especially for white people.

At the nano scale, tiny cantilevers can detect the presence of
minuscule amounts of pollution in water. Instead of measuring
pollution in parts per million or parts per billion, nano
cantilevers can measure parts per quadrillion (yes, 10 raised
to the power of negative 15), an astonishing sensitivity. The
NNI is now developing nano-sensors, hoping they can help us
clean up the billions of tons of toxic wastes created by the
20th century's ongoing experiment with better living through
chemistry.

Of course chemists have been manipulating atoms and molecules
for more than a century, but PRECISE manipulation at the
nanoscale is really very new. Modern nanotech was made possible
by the 1981 invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope
(STM) which allows scientists to "click and drag" individual
atoms and thus build new things in new ways. For their work on
the STM, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at the IBM Research
Laboratory in Zurich received the Nobel prize for physics in
1986. [6, pg. 44]

In 1990, two scientists at IBM's Almaden Research Laboratory in
San Jose, Cal. demonstrated nano manipulation with an STM when
they lined up 35 individual xenon atoms to spell out "IBM."
This seemingly-trivial exercise demonstrated the first steps
toward "bottom-up construction," the intentional arrangement of
individual atoms into useful substances and machines. In May of
this year, Japanese scientists demonstrated another
breakthrough -- they moved single atoms precisely, using
strictly mechanical (non-electric) techniques.[7]

Typical construction today -- even construction of the tiniest
computer circuit -- relies on "top-down" techniques, machining
or etching products out of blocks of raw material. For example,
a common technique for making a transistor begins with a chunk
of silicon, which is etched to remove unwanted material,
leaving behind a sculpted circuit. This "top-down" method of
construction gives the desired product plus waste residues.
Using bottom-up construction, atoms are arranged -- or in ideal
cases they self-assemble -- into the desired configuration with
nothing left over, no waste. Thus bottom-up construction offers
the possibility of waste-free manufacturing.

Bottom-up construction techniques are now being used to
manufacture the surfaces of some computer disks, and to make
"quantum dots" for labeling and identifying particular genes or
other molecules, improving on traditional dyes. In principle,
bottom-up construction could assemble more complicated
structures, including perhaps nano scale robots, or nanobots.

Nanobots lie in the future (or strictly in science fiction,
depending on who you believe), but nano-scale particles of
carbon such as nanotubes or buckyballs, named after Buckminster
Fuller, have already found their way into commercial products.

According to the Etc Group, which follows nanotech developments
carefully, an estimated 140 companies are now producing
nanoparticles in powders, sprays, and coatings that are being
used in a variety of products, including sunscreens, automobile
parts, tennis rackets, scratch-proof eye glasses,
stain-repellent fabrics, self-cleaning windows, and more.[8,
pg. 2] Mitsubishi Chemical in Japan has reportedly begun
construction of a plant to manufacture nanotubes at the rate of
120 tons per year, with plans to increase output to 1500 tons
per year by 2007.[9]

The manufacture and use of nanoparticles is entirely
unregulated in the U.S. and elsewhere. Furthermore, industry
has developed no standard protocols for handling nanoparticles
safely during manufacture, use, or disposal. The environmental
and human health effects of nanoparticles are untested and
unknown.

The April 11, 2003 edition of Science magazine reported the
first nanoparticle experiments. When mice were exposed to
nanotubes (which have a diameter of about 10 nanometers), the
nanotubes lodged in the alveoli, the deepest portions of the
mice's lungs and triggered the formation of granulomas, "a
significant sign of toxicity," according to the researcher who
conducted the experiment, Chiu-Wing Lam at NASA's Johnson Space
Flight Center in Houston.[10]

Carbon nanotubes were not the only nanomaterials to raise red
flags. Toxicologist Gunter Oberdorster at the University of
Rochester School of Medicine exposed rats to 20-nanometer
particles of polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, and all the rats
died within 4 hours, according to Science. Rats exposed to
130-nanometer particles of PTFE showed no effects. Oberdorster
noted that rats' macrophage cells, which normally clear junk
out of the lungs, had trouble clearing the 20-nanometer
particles.[10] We will explore this subject in more detail
later in this series.

Nanotechnologists have no doubt that nanomachines lie in our
future. Only their true nature remains in question. At least
one experimental nanomachine has already been built. Powered by
the energy of adenosine triphosphate (the energy source in
human cells) and standing only 11 nanometers tall, this nano
motor can rotate a metallic rod (750 nanometers long, 150
nanometers thick) at 8 rpm. [6, pg. 47] With the recent
addition of a chemical switch, the nano-motor can be turned on
and off at will.[11] Such a machine serves no useful purpose
today, except to demonstrate possibilities and fuel dreams.

A major controversy over the future of nanomachines has been
simmering since 1990 when K. Eric Drexler published Engines of
Creation, in which he envisioned a household appliance
something like a microwave oven using bottom-up construction to
make anything you might want -- a computer chip, a Rolex watch,
or a carrot. The key to Drexler's futuristic dream is what he
calls an "assembler" operating under software control -- a
nanobot programmed to assemble atoms into anything you can
imagine, including copies of itself. [12, pg. 75]

Today, more than a decade after starting the nanobot debate,
Drexler brushes aside scornful critiques by Nobel laureates and
maintains his faith in the future of nanobot assemblers.
Writing in Scientific American in September 2001, he said,

"Inspired by molecular biology, studies of advanced
nanotechnologies have focused on bottom-up construction, in
which molecular machines assemble molecular building blocks to
form products, including new molecular machines. Biology shows
us that molecular machine systems and their products can be
made cheaply and in vast quantities. [12, pg. 74]

Eventually, Drexler says, these cheap, plentiful machines will
improve and extend life for everyone:

"Medical nanobots are envisioned that could destroy viruses and
cancer cells, repair damaged structures, remove accumulated
wastes from the brain and bring the body back to a state of
youthful health." [12, p. 74]

Furthermore, Drexler says, programmable nanobots would save the
natural environment as well:

"[W]hen a production process maintains control of each atom,
there is no reason to dump toxic leftovers into the air or
water. Improved manufacturing could also drive down the cost of
solar cells and energy storage systems, cutting demand for coal
and petroleum, further reducing pollution. Such advances raise
hopes that those in the developing world will be able to reach
First World living standards without causing environmental
disaster." [12, pg. 74]

The National Science Foundation shares most of Drexler's
utopian vision. Dr. Mihail Roco -- chief architect of the NNI
-- says nanotech will bring us a "new renaissance in our
understanding of nature, means for improving human performance,
and a new industrial revolution in coming decades."

NSF believes the nano revolution is not far off. Roco predicts
that "Nanotechnology will fundamentally transform science,
technology, and society. In 10 to 20 years, a significant
proportion of industrial production, healthcare practice, and
environmental management will be changed by the new
technology." [13, p. 19]

Roco says nanotech will give us "highly efficient manufacturing
of all human made objects," leading to "long term sustainable
development." In medicine, he says, nanotech will
"revolutionize diagnostics and therapeutics." Indeed, Roco
envisions a global society entirely transformed by nanotech:
"The effect of nanotechnologies on the health, wealth, and
standard of living for people in this century could be at least
as significant as the combined influences of microelectronics,
medical imaging, computer-aided engineering, and man-made
polymers [plastics] developed in the last century."[13, pg. 2]

Where the NSF and Drexler part company is at nanotech's dark
side. Where the NSF sees nanotech creating a few problems that
are relatively minor and entirely manageable, Drexler sees the
possibility of global disaster.

Drexler warned in 1990 that the dark side of nanomachines might
include a self-replicating assembler that goes haywire (by
accident or by malevolent design) and starts replicating itself
incessantly, filling up the planet with "grey goo," a scenario
that has come to symbolize the dangers of nanotech.

The National Science Foundation does not categorically deny the
possibility of self-replicating assemblers, saying only that "A
number of very serious technical challenges would have to be
overcome before it would be possible to create nanoscale
machines that could reproduce themselves in the natural
environment. Some of these challenges appear to be
insurmountable with respect to chemistry and physics
principles, and it may be technically impossible to create
self-reproducing mechanical nanoscale robots of the sort that
some visionaries have imagined." [13, pg. 11]

Despite his grey goo nightmare, Drexler remains an avid and
optimistic proponent of nanotech. He argues that the grey goo
problem can be avoided by thoughtful humans. His Foresight
Institute has even published a set of "safety rules" to
minimize abuses of nanotech (www.foresight.org). Still, Drexler
wrote in Scientific American in 2001, "[T]he challenge of
preventing abuse -- the exploitation of this technology by
aggressive governments, terrorist groups or even individuals
for their own purposes -- still looms large." [12, p. 75]

[To be continued.]

[1] Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, editors,
Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance
(Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, June, 2002.
http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=208

[2] "The Little BANG Theory," ETC Group Communique #78
(March/April 2003). Available on the web at
http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/comBANG2003.pdf . And see The
Etc Group, The Big Down (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, January
2003). Available at
http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=210 . The Etc Group is
the primary source of information about nanotechnology for
non-governmental organizations. See http://www.etcgroup.org and
make sure to read their publication called Communique at
http://www.etcgroup.org/search.asp?type=communique . To get a
sense of the "gold rush" mentality that grips the nanotech
industry today, check in daily at http://nanotech-now.com/ .

[3] Alexander Huw Arnall, Future Technologies, Today's Choices
(London, England: Greenpeace Environmental Trust, July 2003).
Available on the web at
http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=207 .

[4] Michael Roukes, "Plenty of Room Indeed," Scientific
American Vol. 285, No. 3 (September 2001), pgs. 48-57.

[5] Gary Stix, "Little Big Science," Scientific American Vol.
285, No. 3 (September 2001), pgs. 32-37.

[6] George M. Whitesides and J. Christopher Love, "The Art of
Building Small," Scientific American Vol. 285, No. 3 (September
2001), pgs. 39-47.

[7] Lea Winerman, "How to Grab an Atom," Physical Review Focus
May 2, 2003, available at http://focus.aps.org/story/v11/st19 ,
reporting on Noriaki Oyabu, Oscar Custance, Insook Yi, Yasuhiro
Sugawara, and Seizo Morita, "Mechanical vertical manipulation
of selected single atoms by soft nanoindentation using a near
contact atomic force microscope," Physical Review Letters Vol.
90, No. 176102 (May 2, 2003), an abstract of which is available
at
http://ojps.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id
=PRLTAO000090000017176102000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=Yes .

[8] "Green Goo: Nanobiotechnology Comes Alive!" Etc Group
Communique #77 (Jan./Feb. 2003), pg. 2. Available at
http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/comm_greengoo77.pdf .

[9] Jayne Fried, "Japan Sees Nanotech as Key to rebuilding Its
Economy," Small Times Jan. 7, 2002, pgs. unknown. Available at
http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=217 .

[10] Robert F. Service, "Nanomaterials Show Signs of Toxicity"
Science Vol. 300 (April 11, 2003), pg. 243. Available at
http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=224 .

[11] Philip Ball, "Molecular Wheel Gets a Brake," Nature News
Service Oct. 30, 2002, reporting on Haiqing Liu and others,
"Control of a biomolecular motor-powered nanodevice with an
engineered chemical switch," Nature Materials Vol. 1 (2002),
pgs. 173-177.

[12] K. Eric Drexler, "Machine-Phase Nanotechnology,"
Scientific American Vol. 285, No. 3 (September 2001), pgs.
74-75.

[13] Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, Societal
Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (Washington,
D.C.: National Science Foundation, March 2001). Available at
http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=217 .