Public understanding of nanotech is low
Government-commissioned report on nanotech released.
Less than one in five members of the public know what nanotechnology is, according to a UK government-commissioned report on the topic. But even the experts that compiled the report had their work cut out. In fact, says Ann Dowling, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge who chaired the working group, 'nanotechnologies' is a more helpful term, to cover the bewildering array of fields sheltering under the title.
'Nanotechnology is about using phenomena that occur at the nanometre scale,' said Dowling. There are many nanosized structures around, but nanotechnology is associated with unique properties related to those nano proportions.
'We categorise nanomaterials as those which have structured components with at least one dimension less than 100nm', write the authors of the report, published by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Materials with only one dimension in the nanoscale are layers; those with two include nanotubes and wires; those with three are nanoparticles.
Tubes and particles have the worst reputation on the health and environment front (see Chemistry World, July 2004, p8), and the report flagged these as urgently needing further research and a reassessment of regulation governing their use. Some widely-publicised fears remain wholly unsubstantiated, however.
Among the evidence taken by the group came comments from Eric Drexler, chairman of the Foresight Institute, who first raised the possibility of self-replicating nano machines running out of control and replicating themselves indefinitely - the 'grey-goo' scenario. Drexler now says this is highly unlikely for numerous 'practical and sensible' reasons. 'I believe it's very much the wrong issue to focus on,' he said.
The report recommends that the ethical and social implications of nanotechnology should form part of every student's training. Just as the report was published, the University of Surrey, UK, announced plans for an EngD in nanomaterials and nanotechnology, to launch in 2005. The course will, according to a spokesperson at the university, include an ethical and social component.
Advancing Beneficial Nanotechnology
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