Nanotech is Big

A nanometer is a one billionth of a meter. How small is that? It is so small that a human hair is 100,000 nanometers thick, an average man is 1.7 billion nanometers tall, a strand of DNA is 2-3 nanometers & an atom is 1/10 of a nanometer. You can’t see a nanometer with your naked eye or even with the most powerful optical microscopes. But we can see them with our electronic microscopes and we can now manipulate matter at the atomic level. This is nanotechnology, one of the most exciting industries of the future.

I don’t understand all the physics, but I am excited by the possibilities. What our expert told me today was that for most of our daily lives, the things we can see with our eyes, Newtonian physics works just fine. But when things get very small, on the nano level, elements behave in different ways. A nano-particle is not the same as a molecule. Molecules are stable. Nano-particles are not because they behave according to the rules of quantum physics.

A good background is here at

It's like alchemy. Our experts explained that nanotech cannot turn lead into gold, but it can make an element like lead behave like gold in certain circumstance. For example, gold can be used as a catalyst in some situations. At the nano level, a cheaper material such as copper can be made to perform like gold. This is way beyond my level of understanding, but it has to do with surface areas. The surface areas is the only part that really interacts. This is as far as my science goes.

One of the interesting uses mentioned was to use nanotechnology to minimize the need for or even replace so-called rare-earth elements. In recent years, the Chinese have cornered the market on many of these. We don’t require vast quantities of materials, but they are crucial to the production of many high-tech products. Nanotech will allow us, once again, to do an end run around a would-be monopolist.

Nanotech is an enabling technology. For example, nanotechnology is already being used in medicine. A nano-particle can deliver medicine directly to cancer cells and kill them w/o affecting neighboring cells. Some nano-particles can be activated by infrared or magnetism. In that case, a nano-particle could be directed to a cancer cell and then activated to get hot and kill the cancers. These advances have developed only in the last five years.

We are now familiar with the stain repelling, wrinkle free fabrics, even sox that won't stink. These were developed using nanotechnology. We also have self-healing paints. For example, a car paint can cover its own scratches. The closest thing to a mass produced commodity product today are carbon nano tubes. They can be stronger than steel but at almost no weight.

Nanotech can help with the environment, for example, turning seawater into drinking water with reverse osmosis or using nanotechnology in agriculture and food.

Of course, nothing is free and with any advance comes risk. Nano-particles are so small that they can penetrate deep into your body. They can breach the blood brain barrier, for example. This is great for delivery of medicines but not so good for potentially harmful substances.

R = E * H – i.e. risk equals exposure times hazard. This is how we need to assess risk. A shark is very hazardous, but if you are not in the ocean and not exposed to it, there is no risk. On the other hand, constant exposure to a low level hazard can be much more dangerous. To most people, bees are a much bigger threat than sharks. Of course, exposure to some things is not hazardous at all.

In traditional risk management, dosage or amount makes a big difference. In these cases, the difference between a deadly poison and a harmless substance or even a beneficial medicine is often the dosage, even something as deadly as arsenic in small enough quantities is harmless. With nanotech, we are just not sure if that useful rule applies. Researchers disagree. Another uncertainty is just in the production of nano-materials. We still don’t understand all the processes so there is great variation from batch to batch, even when made by the same people ostensibly the same way. This is why regulating nanotech is a challenge.

Nanotechnology has the potential to be a revolutionary process. It changes the very nature of matter that we work with. But we do have to evaluate risks versus benefits on individual basis and do so across the whole product lifecycle, i.e. from material to manufacturing to consumer use to final disposal.

More information from CRS:

Nanotechnology and Environmental, Health, and Safety: Issues for Consideration

Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer

Posted by Christine & John at June 23, 2011 8:21 PM
Comment #324886

Good post. I’m actually very familiar with this field, having studied it in school. A friend of mine is involved in research regarding graphene, which basically is a carbon nanotube unrolled into a sheet. It is thought that graphene can be engineered to be a semiconductor enabling us to produce even faster computer chips if we can find a way to replace the silicon with graphene.

I’m not too concerned with any potential risks. Because they are so small they can indeed penetrate deep into the body, but it also means they hardly ever get lodged inside, which might mean cells are only inadvertently exposed for short time periods.

Posted by: Warped Reality at June 23, 2011 9:51 PM
Comment #324889


I was less familiar with the field and I still don’t have a firm grasp of the actual physics. The guy who explained it to me said it wasn’t hard. All you need to do, he said, was to take a science course in college, do some graduate work and then spend a couple decades doing actual work.

But I could understand some of the applications and potential.

As you may know, if you follow my other blog, I generally take notes so that I can understand. I learn by writing, which is what I am doing here. I appreciate the comments.

I figure that some people will fear nanotech, as they fear biotech and all new things.

Posted by: C&J at June 23, 2011 10:17 PM
Comment #324891

What’s worse is politicians with little or no understanding of the subject will legislate based upon their ignorance.

Posted by: Tom Jefferson at June 23, 2011 10:45 PM
Comment #324893


I generally take notes so that I can understand.

Different people learn in different ways. I am very much an auditory learner. Often when I try to take notes, it distracts me from listening and I find it much harder to understand what is going on. In class, I prefer to give my professor my undivided attention and remain actively engaged.

Going back to your OP, I think one of the reasons some people are apprehensive regarding nanoparticles is that when you make particles of a substance so small, you increase the total surface area dramatically. The dosage of many substances is usually a function of total surface area rather than mass because the chemical reactions can only occur at the surface. Some have hypothesized that this could turn relatively harmless substances in to quite harmful ones. Nonetheless, we are nowhere near done studying the effects of inhaling these particles (or knowing how much particle inhalation we can expect from future products utilizing nanotechnology. This is in contrast to biotechnology which has a few studies showing some products to be relatively harmless.

The main difference is that biotechnology cannot be undone if we discover some ill side effect. Nanotechnology does not breed on its own. In the future, if we discover some ill side-effect; the task of removing nanotechnology is a lot simpler.

Posted by: Warped Reality at June 23, 2011 11:18 PM
Comment #324894

For some time now computer chips have operated in the nanosecond speed range. That is critical in the areas where there is a rise and fall of a signal to or from a device. Actually it is critical at all levels. The more devices are incorporated into one case the critical level of space and time are exhibited. Otherwise nothing will work.

Posted by: tom humes at June 23, 2011 11:39 PM
Comment #324921

C&J - you must live and breath this tech stuff. Yep I was already aware of the nano tech in the agri-world. You know those very fine rootlets on plants do a wonderful job of nutrient uptake - providing the nutrients are available. Hydroponics is interesting but not for all plants - logistically speaking. I really hope that I never see the day I get handed a packet of glop with nano-flaver additives and nutrients unless I am in a space station a long way from this planet exploring some new place. The fact that some fruits and vegies are ‘dusted’ with nano-particles to inhibit decay/fungi already makes my skin crawl. What is that stuff doing to my digestive system? Just how much BT is already growing in my intestinal tract? What will be the long term effects of these things? And guess what the FDA has said that it does not have to regulate the “Nano’s” as they are not food. So no testing required.
Honestly I am not against technology - just keep it out of what I eat PLEASE. Teach people how to grow their food and they will never be hungry. Give them food stamps and they will alway be there with a hand out expecting you or someone else to take care of them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put some seeds in soil and water them.
Just think how easy it would be for a wacked out idiot to take a technology like this and use it against a population center. Btw if you have livestock, esp sheep - don’t let them eat any of the bt enhanced crop matter. it may poison them. Bunch of farmers in India found that out the hard way.

Posted by: Kathryn at June 24, 2011 11:12 AM
Comment #324924

C&J Just looking around the sci abstracts and behold nano-toxicity! especially for aquatic critters. My oh my how we love to play with all the new technology without regard to the consequences to where we have to live, breath and die. All kinds of intriqing things to read good and some not so good but interesting non-the-less.

Posted by: Kathryn at June 24, 2011 1:30 PM
Comment #324925
I figure that some people will fear nanotech, as they fear biotech and all new things.

Perhaps you have “fear” confused with “question authority” or “healthy skepticism”. To naively believe that technology is automatically good and those that question are fearful is just plain illogical, C&J.

BTW that corn with roundup engineered into it’s DNA may not be as smart as it sounds.

Posted by: j2t2 at June 24, 2011 2:05 PM
Comment #324928


A piece of advice. When I find something listed in a place like Fox, I try to find a second source to list, since I know that it will have more credibility. Huffington Post is not a reliable source. Beyond that, the study they mention is by an advocacy group.

Beyond all this, the report you reference is NOT about biotech. It is about roundup, which is used in traditional agriculture too. Roundup was invented before BT corn became common.

As I mentioned in the original posting, we have lots of safeguards and tests. I have advocating doing that in the original post. We need to balance risks and respond to real risks, not misguided perceptions. But I recognize that no amount of science will satisfy the conspiracy theorists.

You know, I predicted this years ago. When the Bush Administration regulated stem cells and cloning, the lefties were temporarily progressive in the true sense. I wrote at that time that this would be short-lived.


In my original post notice the parts near “Of course, nothing is free and with any advance comes risk.”

And in the penultimate section “But we do have to evaluate risks versus benefits on individual basis and do so across the whole product lifecycle, i.e. from material to manufacturing to consumer use to final disposal.”

I believe in science, i.e. constant evaluation, transparency, peer review etc. That is what we are doing with these new technologies. It would be foolish and unscientific to accept anything without due consideration and equally unscientific and foolish to reject it out of perceptions based on fear.

Posted by: C&J at June 24, 2011 2:27 PM
Comment #324970
Huffington Post is not a reliable source.

I beg to differ C&J it is much more reliable than Fox. If you have specifics as to why Huffpo is not reliable, if they have pulled a breitbart or something please link to them, until then they seem to me to be credible,IMHO.

Beyond that, the study they mention is by an advocacy group.

So put my trust into any new biotech that hits the street, don’t question it as this advocacy group has done? Thank you kindly C&J for the advice but I will still question the science.

As I mentioned in the original posting, we have lots of safeguards and tests. I have advocating doing that in the original post. We need to balance risks and respond to real risks, not misguided perceptions.

Yep and these companies self regulate without the need for government intervention I’ll bet. With the proliferation of private industry types going into government overseer positions during the Bush era a lack of confidence has developed in many people regarding the ability of these regulators to not put the interests of the business ahead of the interest of the people.

But I recognize that no amount of science will satisfy the conspiracy theorists.

It is not the science that is the problem C&J it is the ability of the bean counters to override good science to make a buck. Not a conspiracy, thank you for the insult, but business practices that tells us watch them closely, to trust but verify. Healthy skepticism as I said in the previous post.

You know, I predicted this years ago. When the Bush Administration regulated stem cells and cloning, the lefties were temporarily progressive in the true sense. I wrote at that time that this would be short-lived.

C&J this must be that conservative trait of only black and white coming out. There are two sides to the biotech coin so I don’t flat out reject biotech but I do ask that it prove itself. Because the oligopoly says it is so doesn’t mean it is so, they serve their own best interest. That does not make me “fearful”

Posted by: j2t2 at June 24, 2011 10:38 PM
Comment #324976


I followed the links and then the links within your links. They start refer to “anonymous scientists” or “authoritative” but unnamed sources.

I do not believe in self regulation. But I also know that scientists in the U.S., EU, Brazil and India have found that GMOs are not greater threats than ordinary crops.

Your sources, and others, also frequently complain that GMO crops are not more productive than ordinary ones. This is a bogus argument. If the GMOs are indeed less productive or more expensive per unit, farmers will not use them.

This argument that we should ban or restrict their use because they are not worth using is just dumb on the surface. It is like the old Yogi Berra quip “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

So GMOs have proven themselves beyond a reasonable doubt on the safety front. If they prove not to be viable economically, they will not be used.

BTW - there are several sides to most arguments, but they are not all equally valid. All things have risks and benefits. Electricity, for example, kills people every day and requires significant safeguards. Do we ban electricity?

Posted by: C&J at June 24, 2011 11:25 PM
Comment #325034

Well, Nanotech has long been a subject I’m interested in.

The first two names you should know are Richard Feynman and K. Eric Drexler. Feynman, a noted Physicist, had this lecture Which you can read here where he speculated on the development of the technology of the very small, at the atomic level.

Drexler wrote this book that popularized it, that speculated on all sorts of machines, these nano assemblers that could build and rebuild things from the ground up. That came out about 1986. His work popularized it, and got people pushing on it.

Another signficant development was the discovery of Fullerenes, in particular, Buckminsterfullerene, or C-60, a soccerball shaped molecule that demonstrated that carbon could exist in a form other than diamond or graphite. All this got people going.

The sort of alchemical thing that C&J were talking about is mostly likely quantum dots, and it works a little like this: The chemical and electromagnetic properties of all atoms and all elements are determined by their electron orbitals, that is how many electrons are orbiting in what configuration. That’s what makes iron conduct electricity differently from silicon or carbon. That’s also what makes carbon, silicon, and iron behave differently in their physical properties.

The quantum dot is engineered sort of the way modern transistors are, such that it could mimic the electron configurations. Mimic those, and you can mimic the optical, physical, and thermodynamic properties of a given substance. You could even, potentially, mimic electron configurations for elements far beyond what we can create in nuclear laboratories here on earth.

Drexler’s notions of ultra-small machines runs into the problem of quantum behavior. That is, on the atomic and molecular scale, the material a nanobot is trying to handle might stick to its manipulators rather than dutifully separate as something a robot on our level is handling.

Early visions of Nanotech focused on these sorts of nanomachines, but the way I’m seeing it, It’s starting out at least as more of a materials oriented field, seeing how properties on the nano level create effects on the macro level.

It’s been my observation that technology often develops at right angles to expectations. I expect no different here. I also expect that things will be weirdly similar in their shape twenty or thirty years from now, yet oddly different. New technologies don’t seem to completely rewrite the way the world works wholesale so much as mutate things instead.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at June 26, 2011 10:22 PM
Comment #325075


Thanks. It was newer to me than to you. It seems almost like magic to me.

Posted by: C&J at June 28, 2011 7:44 PM
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