Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A better nanotech discussion, please

For a project I worked on several years ago addressing nanotechnology and water availability issues, I wrote the following:
Scarcity of clean water in many regions creates problems and conflict for large numbers of the world's population. This is a remarkable time, when understanding our dependence on the planet's fresh-water resources and our demands on these resources are both at an all-time high. The connections between water policy and foreign policy are stronger than they have ever been,though the tools and practices of politics, negotiation, diplomacy and international cooperation are often inadequately applied to water problems. This issue is, no doubt, related to global poverty, but it is probably better to look at it as a resource issue. In some ways, it is more pressing than the oil supply problem.
I went on to discuss how the access to *clean* water is key and implies that there is a need for effective and cheap filtration systems. One approach that a group member of mine was working on was very similar to the one describe in this report (exerpted here).
For example, researchers at Rice University have been working on the use of nanoparticles to absorb arsenic from drinking water supplies.
Nanoscale iron oxide absorbs arsenic efficiently, but in many countries implementing the process is either too expensive or technically impossible. The Rice researchers realized they could use magnetic filtration for nanosorbents, which, at the small-size range, could pull out unsafe particles with a handheld magnet…
The “recipe” to make nanoscale magnetite can be posted on the Web, allowing the technique to be distributed to many villages and used by any individual with modest means in a regular kitchen setting.
This solution might be called “open-source nanotechnology”…
Christine (at the exerpted link) wonders if the recipe actually has been posted on the web. I have another question. First, clean water is probably most needed in places where there are currently no "regular kitchen" settings, even no running water. Certainly, water filtration in the West could be made cheaper and better (I'm all in favor of it), but it is really needed in developing regions where water is supplied from watering holes or town wells.
Second, can we please stop speaking about nanotechnology in these u(dys)topian terms? Nanotechnology seems to have two extremes to approaching it when it comes to written literature. Either it is overhyped and is seen as the solution to all of mankind's problems without regard to practical manufacturing or productive issues or it is attacked as being too dangerous to pursue. Both of these approaches are pretty foolish. It's time to stop looking at nanotechnology as the Next Frontier of Technology and start recognizing that it is here on our doorstep and we need to develop a responsible approach toward technology development, improvement, and transfer. The last point, transfer, is especially important if we areto use nanotechnology as a tool for soft power diplomacy. This needs to be done in a cost-effective manner that encourages investment into nanotechnology for developing world problems. Not in pie-in-the-sky terms.

(Sorry for mixing metaphors)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The sticky fingers problem all over again

"Sticky fingers" all over again:
Inexpensive 'nanoglue' can bond nearly anything together from

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a new method to bond materials that don’t normally stick together. The team’s adhesive, which is based on self-assembling nanoscale chains, could impact everything from next-generation computer chip manufacturing to energy production.[...]
The research article is here

P.S. Yes, I know that this isn't actually the "sticky fingers" problem.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Nanotechnology - one of the oldest technologies

Nanotechnology and medieval technology: Nanotubes in Damascus Blades.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The new introduction to Engines

Well, I promised a comment when I had read the introduction to the 20th Anniversary edition of Engines of Creation a little more in depth. I don't feel much of a need to reread the entire book, though I will probably scan through it from time to time.

My feeling of the introduction is first that it detracts from the rest of the book. It reads like someone who is upset that the government didn't fund his ideas and instead funded someone else's. As a non-casual reader (someone who has been involved in nanotechnology development), I'm not sure I really care all that much. I'm pretty sure a more casual reader won't really care at all. The description of Dr. Drexler's exchange with Prof. Smalley is also lacking. Dr. Drexler writes that Prof. Smalley had failed to refute his ideas (therefore, I suppose we are to assume, Dr. Drexler's ideas on molecular manufacturing must be true). I've never seen science to work this way. It seems to me that impetus of proof is on the developer of the new idea. And, besides, when I read the exchange when it first came out in 2003 it struck me that Prof. Smalley made some very valid points that need to be answered and accounted for if molecular manufacturing is ever going to gain much traction.

Towards the end of the non-"Looking Forward" section of the introduction, Drexler also makes this criticism of the modern world: "readers of a controversial document can’t easily see the best-rated criticisms, and so critics can’t respond where it would matter most. And so the Web presents knowledge and nonsense almost as equals, and amplifies both. At both the surface and depths of the computational world, there’s a need for new structures." Users of Technorati and countless other current and developing Web services would disagree with this criticism. And besides, it is out of place. This complaint is the same one that Prof. Cass Sunstein lays down in It's useful, but not related to nanotechnology (or molecular manufacturing).

Anyway, those are my brief thoughts on the introduction to the 20th Anniversary edition of Engines of Creation.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Engines of Creation 2.0

WOWIO is offering Engines of Creation 2.0 for free download. I read the book (1.0 in paperback) about 6 years ago when I first got to grad school. It's definitely worth reading if you are interested in Nanotechnology and the implications of it. It you haven't read it, get it for free and read it from the PDF (you have to have an email address from a .edu, .mil, .gov, or .us address).

I have my own issues with molecular manufacturing and focusing on it (basically, I'm skeptical, it isn't what nanotechnology researchers actually do in the lab, and some of the predictions that are made on the effect to things like international relations, economics, and other fields completely out of the realm of science are pretty unsubstantiated and are wild speculation). But the book is important in understanding a lot of the discussion that goes on in discussing the future of nanotechnology (particularly where the Foresight Institute is involved).

Also, Ray Kurzweil's endorsement of the book, putting it on par with Newton's Principia is an extreme exageration of the impact of the book on science and the world. Furthermore (and of course I realize that they're trying to push the book), the book description also says that "Engines of Creation laid the theoretical foundation for the modern field of nanotechnology." Ummm... see my above comment about how nanotechnology as it is researched today is pretty far from what is laid out in the book. It probably doesn't help in educating the public about technology in general and nanotechnology in particular to use these types of hyperbole.

[Update] - I should note that I haven't yet read the introduction to the new edition but I've skimmed it and I will definitely have comments on it soon

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Review of Nanofuture

My review in the journal Nanotechnology Law & Business of the book Nanofuture is out. You can't access it online unless you have a login, but here's a link on this site to the review (pdf).

The rest of the journal is interesting as well. This issue has a decent amount of carbon nanotube information in it (as the most developed section of nanomaterials, who can blame them? It is a Law and Business journal). Enjoy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Nanotechnology and Societal Transformation

This paper (pdf) by Michael Crow and Daniel Sarewitz contains this gem:
Three observations are particularly relevant here. First, the impact of rapid technological innovation on people’s lives is usually not consensual. Second, in the short term at least, the social changes induced by new technologies usually create both winners and losers (where what is lost may range from a job to an entire community). Third, rapid technological change can threaten the social structure, economic stability, and spiritual meaning that people strive in their lives to achieve. As the nanotechnology revolution begins to unfold in all its promise and diversity, such issues are bound to express themselves. They should not be viewed as threats, or as manifestations of intellectual weakness or repugnant ideology. Rather, they need to be recognized as a central part of the human context for technological change.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Technology development for the 3rd world

Think this method could be applied to nanotech:
Under an advance market commitment plan, the G-8 nations would promise to subsidize the purchase of new vaccines -- for between $800 million and $6 billion -- if pharmaceuticals companies develop ones that meet standards of efficacy and safety. Once the G-8 spends the pledged amount, the drug companies would sell the vaccine at a set discount in the developing world.

The idea is to ensure that companies get a substantial, upfront, government-backed financial incentive to develop the drugs, even if they ultimately have to sell them at a low price. "By restoring appropriate incentives," advance market commitments "can stimulate private research and investment, accelerate the discovery of new vaccines, save lives and contribute to economic development in a cost-effective way," Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti wrote in a report to his G-8 colleagues in December.
Probably. It sounds like a good idea. Let the market do the work, but guide the market.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Nano and the ELSI

The Bioethics Blog asks about Nanoethics - is there a there there?
But it is clear from reading just the 10% or so of the dozens of blogs and hundreds of articles that cross my desk in this area that there are interesting social issues here, and that they deserve serious consideration, whether they are special or not. They are there and even if the money devoted to "nanoethics" becomes much like that devoted to ELSI in its formative years at NHGRI, it is easy to see that careers built around the early study of the very small could yield very big scholarship, and new ways of communicating with the public. Even if at the end of the day the work these people do isn't primarily about nanotechnology.

And it seems clear too that the crowd who do nanoscience are just at the beginning of the curve when it comes to understanding the risks associated with making utopian projections for the future of bionanotechnology - projections whose analog in gene therapy resulted in huge misconceptions among research subjects. Just look to South Korea to see what happens when people believe that technology is earth shaking long before it can even shake the building.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

SoTU Nanotech

Nanotechnology got a SoTU mention (of course, it's the most exciting of the research fields and the most bipartisanly supported so it was definitely going to):
First, I propose to double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years. This funding will support the work of America's most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology, supercomputing, and alternative energy sources.

And Science Magazine seems pretty excited:
On the energy front, Bush took an unexpected, strident turn toward clean fuels. Declaring that "America is addicted to oil," Bush said, "the best way to break this addiction is through technology." To do this, he proposed a 22% increase in funding for clean energy science, including an accelerated plan to spend $281 million for clean coal, $65 million in new funds for solar energy, $5 million in new wind power spending, and roughly $120 million in new funding on automobile research.

Science lobbyists are thrilled with the announcements. "[I'm] delighted," says Dan Reed, the Vice Chancellor of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and long a leader among scientists pushing for funding for computer science. "This is something a lot of us have been working for a long time." Now the challenge, he said, is getting an enthusiastic Congress to make the money available in spending bills due in the fall.

Isn't that the truth...

Monday, January 30, 2006


My advisor lent me this book today - Nanotalk:
Nanotalk is a book of conversations and explorations with thirty five such nano-research scientists and engineers who share their ideas, experiences, perceptions, and beliefs about their work, humanity, nature, change, and the future of the world with nanotechnology. Precisely because of the unknowable nature of nanotechnology research and development, conscientious foresight and ethical reflection are warranted every step of the way. Not only do nanotechnology research and development represent enormous financial commitments, but they also require a profound leap of faith regarding its possible outcomes. Using these conversations as the basis of reflection and deliberation, the author explores the possible significance of nanotechnology to humanity and how it might be pursued conscientiously and ethically.

I'm excited to check it out.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Small ROI?

Nanotech and Commerciability:
In 2005 global government spending on nanotechnologies totalled $4.8 billion, according to the Cientifica researchers.

They say government nanotechnology funding takes an average of two to three years before it even reaches the lab, and consequently the impact of nanotechnology will only start to be felt from 2007 onwards.

It also warns that much of the government spending is concentrated on research areas with little immediate commercial impact.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Nanoethics Advisory Board

This morning the Nanoethics Group announced its advisory board:
The Nanoethics Group today announced appointing a distinguished list of members to its Advisory Board, as public interest grows concerning nanotechnology’s impact on ethics and society. These new members represent many diverse fields – such as business, education, science, economics, law, medicine, ethics, and more – to provide guidance on an equally-broad range of important issues.

I'm on it, though I am certainly made nano by some of the other distinguished names.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Science podcasts

While I'm on the subject, it would be good to note some very interesting science-related podcasts.

The first is Nature's weekly podcast that covers some hot topics in science. This week: Cosmic collisions, frogs feel the heat, why plants aren't so green, and ant school: the first example of animal teaching.

The second is the Naked Scientists, which is a little more like a high school science class in that it explains a lot of every day things and the science behind them. Plus, there's a nice experiment that you can do at home.

Other science podcasts include Science Friday, The New Scientist, Science@NASA (xml), and Nova ScienceNOW.

This might be the best reason yet to buy a portable mp3 player.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Nano-Hype by David Berube

There is an interesting new book by communications professor (and associate director of Nanoscience and Technology Studies at the USC Nanocenter) David Berube evaluating the hype of nanotech.
In an effort to set the record straight, professor of communication studies David M. Berube has written this thoroughly researched, accessible overview of nanotechnology in contemporary culture. He evaluates the claims and counterclaims about nanotechnology by a broad range of interested parties including government officials and bureaucrats, industry leaders and entrepreneurs, scientists, journalists, and other persons in the media. Berube appraises programs and grand initiatives here and abroad, and he examines the environmental concerns raised by opponents, as well as the government and private responses to these concerns. With so much argumentation on both sides, it is difficult for anyone to determine what is true. Nano-Hype provides up-to-date, objective information to inform the public.

Berube also has a blog associated with the book and that just makes it all the better, so go visit.