Category Archives: Nanotechnology

Universities devoting significant resources to nanotechnology

Universities are smartly banking on the fact that nanotechnology will be both an economic driver and a topic of interest for future students, and are therefore devoting funds to building new facilities and conducting research in the field.

Yesterday, University of Michigan announced it plans to spend around $46 million on a new facility dubbed the “Center of Excellence in Nano Mechanical Science and Engineering.” The new facility will explore research and development of several nanoscale technologies, including “nanomanufacturing, DNA molecules, energy conversion and microelectromechanical systems for use in medical technologies.”

While the project will be partially funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the grant only covers $9.48 million of the total cost. The university’s willingness to spend their own resources on the project is telling in that it demonstrates their commitment to and optimism for the future of nanotechnology.

While the University of Michigan may be on the forefront of nanotechnology investment with this endeavor, many other universities are vying for grant money to help kick-off or continue their own research.

Yesterday the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, announced it is awarding $65 million in funding to continue its “Programs in Nanotechnology Research,” which began in 2005. The program is designed to “help researchers develop tools based on materials designed at the molecular level to detect and deliver treatments for heart, lung, and blood diseases.”

The funding for this grant will be divided among both hospitals and large universities, including Harvard, MIT, Texas A&M and University of California, among others.

While many have argued that nanotechnology (and molecular nanotech in particular) is underfunded, developments such as these show there is a real, growing interest in this area. Hopefully this latest round of investment only represents the vanguard of what is to come.

Nobel Laureate explains carbon nanotubes

In this video, Sir Harry Kroto talks about why carbon nanotubes will likely lead to stronger, better, safer materials, and potentially transition to “paradigm shifting” applications such as molecular electronics and lossless conduction of electricity.

To the mainstream, transhumanism is still really weird

Sometimes I’m reminded that many of the concepts transhumanists regularly discuss and work toward – cryonics, mind uploading, molecular nanotechnology, life extension and so on – are still extremely foreign and odd to most humans. Try telling your friends you hope to live forever through advanced technologies and see how they react. Then talk to them about the technologies that might enable you to do so.

In this article from AlterNet, a writer discusses the “Bizarre Libertarian Plan of Uploading Brains into Robots to Escape Society.” Setting aside his mistaken presumption that all transhumanists share a libertarian political persuasion (although several prominent voices do), he describes several advanced technologies and concepts central to transhumanist thought and comes to the following conclusion:

No one wants to die, but the thought of living forever among narcissistic libertarian cyborgs makes death’s cold embrace seem more like a squishy hug from the Easter Bunny.

Now AlterNet is a “liberal” blog, but I think this post would have been far more interesting had it compared the approach to transhuman concepts from both a libertarian viewpoint and a democratic transhumanist viewpoint as espoused by thinkers like Dr. James Hughes or George Dvorsky.

Politics aside, though, this article does illustrate how most people view transhumanism. First, these technologies are so radical it’s difficult for most people to wrap their minds around them As a result, transhumanist thinkers get labeled as, at best, idealists, and at worst, cranks. Second, even if you convince people that these technologies are feasible and are on their way, it’s a challenge to convince them that they’re desirable. I’m still amazed more people aren’t enthusiastic about the concept that they might never have to die a natural death.

Transhumanism’s struggle in the near future will be portraying itself in ways that aren’t scary, weird or off-putting. Even so, as transhumanist technologies advance I expect a much larger (and organized) backlash. Good, proactive PR can go a long way toward helping to mitigate negative sentiment.

R.U. Sirius offers his utopian vision for a transhuman future

One of my favorite blogs, io9, has been running a series of posts on “posthumanity” from both fiction and real-life. Today R.U. Sirius of h+ Magazine has a great post up about his “best-case scenario for posthumanity.” In it, he describes what his ideal vision of the future might look like, which includes open-source style collaboration among individuals, molecular manufacturing, control over our own biology and artificial intelligence systems that can solve our problems.

He also provides his opinion on who is helping bring about this potential future:

Ok, so who is working towards this eventuality? Well, if it happens this way, pretty much everybody in the NBIC fields – everybody working on nanotech and biotech and AI and brain science, whether as citizen scientists in a collaborationist project or working for a corporation, or those wacky surrealists at DARPA – they’re all pushing this potentiality forward. Of course, we may have to “hijack the singularity” from them eventually – or even now (think gene patent v. open source bio). But mainly, I think all the people who are engaging in open source collaborationist tinkering and culture, the citizen scientists – particularly the more sophisticated and educated young people that are choosing to invest themselves in “garage” projects – I think they all may be taking us there.

I also think the best, smartest critics and skeptics and SF writers and creators are helping – by problematizing these scenarios in advance, by giving us arguments and narratives that remind us about human behaviors and emotions and political and economic and scientific realities. Brilliant fiction adds to our foresight… our pattern recognition… by playing out dramatic, difficult, dark, challenging, ambiguous or dystopian scenarios based on similar technological possibilities.

Like all of R.U. Sirius’ writings, it’s well worth reading.

Luddites accused of plot to blow up IBM nanotechnology research center

A routine traffic stop in Switzerland nabbed three members of Italian anarchist group Il Silvestre, who are accused of planning to detonate explosives at an IBM facility where nanotechnology and biotechnology research is scheduled to take place:

Swiss police said today that their car was halted on the night of April 15 at Langnau en-route to the technology centre at Rueschlikon, near Zurich.

The site is due to be opened next year and already has some of the most complex and advanced computer equipment in the world installed in it.

‘A large quantity of explosives was found,’ said a police spokesman.

He said the amount of explosive would have caused far more devastation than the Ruetli explosions of 2007. The Ruetli meadow near Lake Lucerne was the scene of small bombs detonated near the homes of politicians in that year.

IBM spokeswoman Susan Orozco confirmed ‘an incident’ but would not say more.

Last month, I pondered why nanotechnology had largely escaped the radar of anti-technology activists. This is a sharp contrast to new technologies like stem cell research and genetically modified foods, which each have inspired protests and “direct action” from activists in the form of pulling up fields of GM crops.

As nanotechnology advances and takes on a larger role in our everyday lives, I expect awareness and opposition will increase. Hopefully violent action against researchers and facilities can be curtailed, however.

U.S. lagging behind other countries on nanotechnology investments

Today the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report to President Barack Obama warning that private and public investment in nanotechnology in the U.S. is falling behind that of other nations. China, in particular, is coming on strong, having recently surpassed the U.S. in the number of nanotechnology patents it’s applied for.

Overall, investment by other countries grew by 27 percent between 2003 and 2008, compared to only 18 percent by the U.S.

The Council presented a number of proposed actions to help the U.S. maintain its lead in the field, including:

[…]the working group called for a $2 million budget increase — up from the current $3 million — to strengthen the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office, which oversees the [National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)].

And they recommend the NNI — which has funneled $12 billion in investments through 25 federal agencies over the past decade — increase its investment in manufacturing of nanomaterials by 100 percent over the next five years.

The report also calls for programs to retain scientific and engineering talent trained in the United States, such as the development of permanent resident cards for foreign nationals who get an advanced degree in science or engineering at a U.S.-accredited institution and can prove they are working in science or engineering fields.

And it calls for better ways to track the impact of nanotechnology on the economy, the environment and health.

As research goes beyond “proof of concept” nanotechnology and continues to show practical uses, the investments will come. I hope the U.S. government will do its part to exercise a light regulatory touch to encourage additional private development.

Where are the anti-nanotech activists?

While advancements in nanotechnology have been developing at a fast pace, there has been a noticeable absence of the kind of activist outrage we’ve seen with other new technologies, such as GMO crops and stem cell research. The question is, why?

Professor Jennifer Kuzma of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota argues nanotechnology doesn’t have the “yuck factor” that accompanies other scientific advancements that do trigger anti-technology activism. She’s got a point – for example, many people just aren’t comfortable with the idea that their food has been genetically altered, even if it’s perfectly safe or “improves” on non-GMO food. Embryonic stem cell research carries an even more severe “yuck” factor, especially for the large percentage of the population who identify as pro-life.

Compared to those two examples, current commercial applications of nanotechnology are relatively boring. The most significant anti-nanotech protest we’ve seen in the United States involved topless women occupying an Eddie Bauer store in Chicago to rage against… stain resistant pants.

Although I’m a huge proponent and enthusiast of nanotechnology, we do have evidence that shows some applications of nanotechnology can be very dangerous. One study showed that, if inhaled, carbon nanotubes could be the “new asbestos,” leading to respiratory problems and cancer. Eric Drexler even wrote about the potential dangers of “grey goo” in his landmark book, Engines of Creation.

As nanotechnology continues to be a topic of research, chances are evidence will come to light that some applications may be hazardous to human health. Although there are few protests at the moment, I agree that it’s in the nanotechnology industry’s best interest to rigorously test the safety of their products to ensure activists don’t have a reason to stifle nanotechnology development:

(David Eaton, professor and director of the Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health at the University of Washington) believes that nano safety data is needed to maintain the public confidence that will be required to facilitate the widespread distribution of the materials into commerce.

“Such advances may be hindered by public fear,” he says, “because we failed to adequately demonstrate the relative safety of the materials before potential exposures become widespread.”

History, he adds, shows how easily such a turn of fortune can happen. “If applications of nanomaterials into consumer products greatly outpaces research that allows us to understand the potential human health and environmental implications of these new technologies,” he predicts, “there will be a public backlash against all forms of nanotechnology, similar to what occurred a number of years ago with genetically modified foods.”

By exercising caution and continuing research that shows the potential of nanotechnology to improve our lives, scientists and industry will have the opportunity to acclimate consumers to a revolutionary new technology before their minds are exposed to fear, uncertainty and doubt from anti-nanotech activists.

Using nanoparticles to deliver targeted gene therapy for cancer

The Journal of Nature published results of a study yesterday that showed nanoparticles can be used to deliver targeted gene therapy that prevents cancer growth.

A team at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena used nanotechnology — the science of really small objects — to create tiny polymer robots covered with a protein called transferrin that seek out a receptor or molecular doorway on many different types of tumors.

[...] In a phase 1 clinical trial in patients with various types of tumors, the team gave doses of the targeted nanoparticles four times over 21 days in a 30-minute intravenous infusion.

Tumor samples taken from three people with melanoma showed the nanoparticles found their way inside tumor cells.

And they found evidence that the therapy had disabled ribonucleotide reductase, suggesting the RNA had done its job.

Davis could not say whether the therapy helped shrink tumors in the patients, but one patient did get a second cycle of treatment, suggesting it might be. Nor could he say if there were any safety concerns.

The Reuters article refers to these particles as “nanotech robots” which I’m not sure is entirely accurate, but it’s still a novel and exciting method of delivering treatment.

Using nanotechnology to destroy colorectal cancer cells

The journal Nanotechnology reports a new method for targeting cancer cells using nanoparticles that destroys cancer cells while using healthy tissue unharmed:

Led by Carl Batt, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Food Science, the researchers synthesized nanoparticles – shaped something like a dumbbell – made of gold sandwiched between two pieces of iron oxide. They then attached antibodies, which target a molecule found only in colorectal cancer cells, to the particles. Once bound, the nanoparticles are engulfed by the cancer cells.

To kill the cells, the researchers use a near-infrared laser, which is a wavelength that doesn’t harm normal tissue at the levels used, but the radiation is absorbed by the gold in the nanoparticles. This causes the cancer cells to heat up and die.

“This is a so-called ‘smart’ therapy,” Batt said. “To be a smart therapy, it should be targeted, and it should have some ability to be activated only when it’s there and then kills just the cancer cells.”

Researchers are now working on improving the technology in order to use it in human clinical trials.

(Via FuturePundit)

In what do you major if you want to go into nanotechnology as a career?

Over at his blog, Metamodern, Eric Drexler answers a question I’ve wondered myself - how does one study for a career in nanotechnology? After all, it’s not like there are nanotechnology majors for undergrads. The question requires a nuanced answer, which Drexler provides, encouraging students to develop a solid foundation of mathematics and basic physics.

He also gives advice on how to approach engineering, how to choose subjects for study, and what to look for in a university when it comes to an undergraduate program. If you or anyone you know is interested in exploring nanotechnology, an area were amazing advancements are taking place on a regular basis, Drexler’s post is a good place to start.