With every innovation in the 20th century, one pattern stands out: where technology advances, a rise in public concern follows. From HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey to wireless devices, new technology gives rise to new questions and new concerns. This is certainly true of nanotechnology – a topic on which I’ve written extensively, and which has been the subject of vigorous debate.
Last month, at the first ever conference of the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization in Washington DC, Michail Roco of the National Science Foundation, and architect of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative provided a response. He said, “every industrial sector is unsustainable…and nanotechnology holds the promise of making every one of them sustainable.”
It’s my belief that that is true: nanotechnology, or the ability to manipulate matter at a scale of one billionth of a meter, has far-reaching implications for the improvement of sustainable technology, industry and society.
Already, it is being used widely to enable more sustainable practices. Safer manufacturing, less waste generation, reusable materials, more efficient energy technologies, better water purification, lower toxicity and environmental impacts from chemotherapy agents to marine paints are all current applications of nanotechnology. There is no reason for this technology to develop in an unsustainable manner.
In the past, a lack of foresight has resulted in costs to society – people, businesses, and governments, and— that could have been avoided by proactive efforts to manage risks. Today, the tools to develop safer technologies and less harmful products exist. Let us not miss this opportunity.
The opportunity for emerging technologies and cutting edge materials to improve our quality of life, and decrease our impact on the planet is compelling. However, we know from past experience that novel materials can have unforeseen impacts. Brominated flame retardants, for example, added to consumer products to reduce their flammability have been detected in household dust, and in people and polar bears. We now have to phase out these chemicals, and introduce new ones.
My just released book, Nanotechnology Health and Environmental Risks Second Edition explains how we can manage the risks while gaining the benefits of this exciting enabling technology with applications that sound so whiz bang they could be science fiction, not current technology. Through a combination of screening risk analysis, life cycle thinking, and iterative analysis, better decisions can be made early in the product life cycle. Chapters contributed by esteemed colleagues in fields of nanotoxicology (Richard Pleus), exposure assessment (Thomas Peters), environmental assessment (J. Michael Davis), and risk perception (Ann Bostrom and Ragnar Lofstedt) describe the cutting edge science and emerging approaches in the field. The developments in the field since the first edition, in 2008, are many and our understanding has improved significantly.
CLF Ventures is working with a variety of public and private organizations to guide their efforts to be proactive in addressing the risks of emerging nanoscale materials and nanotechnologies, while our understanding continues to grow, and our regulatory structures develop. As with all types of innovation, the need for confidence about the safety of the products and demonstration of the benefits is critical to adoption. The potential benefits of nanomaterials and nanotechnologies are transformative and mission-advancing; their impacts must be addressed in order to achieve their benefits.