Monday, December 28, 2009

Nanotech Grows Up: The Little Robots that Ate Civilization

Nanotechnology and Civilization
by Mateo Cueva

When the researcher Eric Drexler popularized the term nanotechnology in 1986, he defined it as a set of techniques which allow the creation and manipulation of matter measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers. This definition has a very wide application, because almost everything on earth can be broken down to this scale. It comes into disciplines as diverse as chemistry, materials science, solid state physics, pharmacy, molecular and chemical biology and electronic engineering.

Almost a quarter of a century later, a wide range of disciplines such as biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science, which up until now were relatively separate, have converged. This combination of bits, atoms, neurons and genes has created the evocative acronym BANG!

The manipulation of matter at the atomic level opens up the possibility of designing nanostructures with radically new properties. Applications include a system to remove pollution from soil and underground water, flat-screen televisions with carbon nanotubes, lightweight high-energy batteries and miniature medical laboratories (“lab-on-a-chip”). Researchers are already predicting the advent of a portable computer capable of a trillion operations per second, photovoltaic paint that can be applied to buildings and roads at a cost of a few pence per square meter, and solar power generators of 1 terawatt (1,000 gigawatts).

The military is ahead of industry in conquering this world “at the bottom [where] there is plenty of room,” as physicist Richard Feynman put it. In the United States, the lion’s share of the National Nanotechology Initiative’s budget has for some time now been spent on military applications. The US defense department supports nanoscale research in chemistry, biology, electronics and energy. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which first developed the internet, promotes research programs on mathematical modeling of the laws of biology, developing prosthetic devices controlled by the brain, and even creating an interface between insect and machine, where a moth could be transformed into a living drone.

Other projects include an atomic clock on a chip, the production of new therapeutic proteins (antibodies and vaccines) that can be developed within 24 hours of a new infection being detected, and a whole array of hardware -- quantum computers, quantum cryptography and high-output optical transmission systems.

If these applications see the light of day, they will of course have civilian uses. The same can’t be said of nano-weapons: India made a priority of their development and production in 2004, and Russia in 2007. The miniaturization of existing weapons could give rise to micro-missiles, micro-satellites, and toxic or pathogenic nanosubstances. Add to that the possibility of completely new types of weapons, such as minute antimatter traps (1 microgram would be equivalent to 44kg of TNT), which could lead to a miniaturized thermonuclear bomb. The experts say these weapons of mass destruction would be easy to construct and transport and very difficult to detect and neutralize.

The visionary computer scientist Raymond Kurzweil, a member of the Army Science Advisory Board (a committee that advises the US army on scientific and technological matters) sees a great danger for humanity in the overlapping of nanotechnologies, genetics and robotics. He believes a terrorist attack by nanorobots or “grey goo” (self-replicating nanomachines) could destroy civilization in a few days, and he recommends creating a nanotech immuno-defense system. At the same time, he is enthusiastic about the idea that this technology could resolve complex problems such as those linked to old age or sickness.

Nanomedecine is already contributing to improved diagnostic techniques, in particular through medical imaging. Naomi Halas and Jennifer West of Rice University in Texas have, for example, developed nanoshells coated with gold, which are attached to cancer-specific antibodies. Once injected into the body, they naturally bind to cancerous tumors. Near-infrared light shone into the body illuminates the nanoshells, forming a very precise image of the tumor. If the amount of light is increased, the gold nanoshells act like a magnifying glass, “frying” the tumor and destroying it.

The antimicrobial properties of silver have been well known for centuries: silver atoms kill bacteria and viruses. These particles become even more effective at the nanometric level. Bandages incorporating nanoparticles of silver are already commercially available, and can eliminate more than 150 pathogens, including bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Scientists are considering using silver nanoparticles on surgical instruments, and even in hospital sheets and curtains, to combat nosocomial infections (infections contracted in hospital, the fifth-largest cause of death in the United States). Since 2006, the Korean company Samsung has been marketing a washing machine that uses silver ions to kill germs, allowing clothes to be washed in cold water.

The possibilities nanomedicine offers are the stuff of dreams – or nightmares. A report by Unesco suggests that, in the long term, nanomedicine could allow people to modify themselves so much it would no longer be possible to talk about “human beings.” A new age would dawn of “posthumans” with enhanced physical and intellectual attributes living alongside ordinary second-class humans, marginalized by their own humanity.

There is the risk that nanomedicine for the rich will monopolize public funds and research efforts, leaving urgent global health problems linked to poverty and social inequality to thrive. What developing countries need is not gold nanoparticles, but preventative health policies based on better diet and housing, access to drinking water, education and essential medicines.

Nano-biotechnology can be used to control the natural regeneration of living organisms in order to carry out precise industrial tasks. For example, researchers are using spinach protein used in photosynthesis to create electronic circuits and produce photosynthetic solar batteries that are completely transistorized. The engineer Carlo Montemagno has combined the heart cells of a rat with silicon to create a device that moves on its own. The work of genetician and businessman John Craig Venter in synthetic biology opens up the possibility of creating bacteria capable of producing hydrogen and capturing CO2.

The BANG is also having an impact on nature and the environment. The chief scientific advisor to the US government, John Holdren, advocates using geo-engineering in the fight against global warming, in particular radical projects such as blasting nanoparticles of sulphate into the atmosphere to block out the sun. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reservations: It believes geo-engineering is “largely speculative and unproven, and with the risk of unknown side effects.”

But that does not discourage the geo-engineers, who want to manipulate the ecosystem through planting genetically modified trees or stimulating algal blooms to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. According to Viktor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany and Wajih Naqvi of India’s National Institute of Oceanography diatoms (microscopic unicellular algae) floating on the ocean surface could absorb carbon on a large scale, and store it for centuries on the ocean floor once they die.

They carried out the Indo-German project Lohafex between January and March, which involved “fertilizing” a large area of the Antarctic Ocean by adding several tons of iron sulphate to stimulate the proliferation of algae. This controversial project was in flagrant contravention of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity held in Bonn in May 2008, which declared a moratorium on artificial ocean fertilization.

The experiment seems so far to have failed, because even though the algae did reproduce, small crustaceans (zooplankton) simply ate them up. Nonetheless, private companies such as Climos Inc. or Planktos Science have entered the field and are developing “eco-restoration” projects, from which they expect high financial returns.

Geo-engineers also think they can solve the problem of feeding the world. By 2017, 1.2 billion people in the world’s 70 poorest nations will be affected by hunger. While developing countries had a significant agricultural surplus in the early 1960s, they are now net importers of food. Only 10 companies control 90% of the global production of agrochemicals and more than two-thirds of proprietary seeds (developed by a company which then owns the intellectual property). In 2007, proprietary seeds made up 82% of the commercial seed market. These companies control the basis of the food chain itself: seeds and their genes. Unless radical reform of the patents system and intellectual property law is undertaken, half a dozen multinational corporations will make off with the world’s natural heritage by patenting its manipulation at the molecular and nanometric level.

Agrochemical giants form alliances in contravention of anti-trust laws and pool their research and development, making deals with one another to avoid costly lawsuits concerning intellectual property. For example, Monsanto and Dow Agrosciences got together to produce by 2010 a maize seed with eight genetic traits (two against herbicide and six against insects): 87% of genetically modified (GM) seeds in the world have Monsanto’s name on them. By raising prices, the industry can profit from the global food crisis, caused in part by land being given over to biofuel cultivation. In July 2008, Monsanto raised the price of some of its GM maize seeds by 35%.

There will be an increasing convergence of bio-, nano- and info-technology, concentrating capital in the hands of a few companies with the technical know-how and the intellectual property: energy, chemical and agribusiness giants such as DuPont, BP, Shell, Chevron and Cargill. The post-oil world will be dominated by what is being called the “sugar economy,” where plant sugars (from agricultural crops, forest residue, algae etc.) will be converted into chemical and nano-products with added value. All the chemistry associated with oil can be adapted to the carbon found in plants.

The oil crisis is likely to drive the seizure, privatization and commercialization of the world’s biological resources, along with increasing demand for raw materials at the expense of the food needs of developing countries. We already know that Madagascar and Angola are prepared to hand over large parts of their land to foreign companies. The giants of the genetics industry even claim that GM can solve climate change. Monsanto, BASF, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow have filed more than 500 patents on “climate ready genes.” It’s called making a profit out of climate chaos. -- translated by Stephanie Irvine

Mateo Cueva is a senior international official.

Copyright © 2009 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global