Nanotechnology: Scientific Challenges and Societal Benefits and Risks
Metallurgical and Materials Transactions
Vol. 35, Num. 6
"Nanotechnology is creating an entirely new class of materials with unique and potentially very useful properties.... [and] extraordinary new behaviors." The last step, says Alton Romig, Jr. (Vice President, Nonproliferation and Assessments, Sandia National Laboratories), is "the ability to characterize and predict nanoscale properties and behaviors" using new experimental tools able to see, measure and move individual nanostructures. Many experts predict positive new capabilities in energy production, human health care and national security. At the same time, the breadth of change that nanoscale products might bring to society warrants careful consideration.
As Sandia Labs, various projects illustrate the potential of nanotechnology. Materials structured in nanolayers may offer low-energy light sources and could save the US $25 billion per year -- as well as reducing carbon emission -- through new white-light illumination. Nanocrystals may use Q-dots to allow "individual biological processes to be tracked simultaneously" in real time. Three dimensional nano-materials can be used as films to "selectively capture and preconcentrate target chemicals for detection and identification.
Listing future concerns, Romig says that an important challege to "achieving manufacturing control over nanotechnology is the development of predictive models for self-assembly." He also cites the need to reduce adhesion and wear in microelectromechanical systems and create active nanoscale coatings.
Most important for modeling is the prediction of toxicology and the interaction of nanoparticles with the environment. Romig asserts the need for relevant measures and regulatory standards for nanoparticles. He praises the NNI's set-aside for ELSI issues and recommends that the National Toxicology Program have a formal linkage with these studies. He urges unrestricted research, with the caveate that scientists should avoid research that is morally repugnant or morally ambiguous or presents an imminent threat to national security. He finally urges money for basic research into physics, applied research in manufacturing, and strategic plans for linking work in the micro and macro scale. This paper was the "2003 Distinguished Lecture in Materials and Society ASM International."