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)