When it comes to nanotechnologies, Americans have a big problem: Nanotechnology and its capacity to alter the fundamentals of nature, it seems, are failing the moral litmus test of religion. Survey results from the United States and Europe reveal a sharp contrast in the perception that nanotechnology is morally acceptable. Those views, according to the report, correlate directly with aggregate levels of religious views in each country surveyed. In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.
This week's successful international nanotechnology forum Rusnanotech in Moscow has put a spotlight on Russia's ambitions to catch up with the leading nanotechnology nations. While Russia has the money, the political will, and a well educated scientific base to be a leading player, it has completely missed the boat on developing its nanoscience programs and nanotechnology infrastructure. In terms of gross domestic product, Russia ranks as the eleventh largest economy in the world. But while many smaller countries such as Australia or South Korea, not to mention all of the bigger nations, have invested steadily and broadly in all areas of nanosciences and nanotechnologies for years now, Russia has had no coordinated science policy, no industrial policy, and no commercial industrial base to develop its nanotechnology capabilities. Until last year, that is. In April 2007, the Russian president signed off on a public policy paper that ordered a multi-billion dollar program to develop a world-class Russian nanotechnology industry by 2015.
Scientists are intensely researching how animals like spiders and geckos generate the high adhesion force that allows them to cling to walls and walk on ceilings, feet over their head. While this research so far has focused on novel materials like carbon nanotubes to replicate spider feet and gecko toes, a key challenge for materials engineers is the scaling up of such materials from small animals to, say, spiderman gloves that support a fully grown human. Complementing the ongoing gecko biomimetic materials research, Nicola M. Pugno, an Associate Professor of Structural Mechanics at the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, has developed what he termed Adhesive Optimization Laws.
Miniaturizing traditional laboratory assays to automated lab-on-a-chip devices holds tremendous potential for enabling multiplex, efficient, cost-effective and accurate pathogen sensing systems for both security and medical applications. These sensors could be used to detect bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, but also other pathogens that could be used for bioterrorism. Traditional identification methods required time intensive cell culturing processes but novel pathogen sensors based on nanomaterials are promising vastly improved and speedy detection technologies. A recent example is a label-free sensor chip assembled from peptide nanotubes that enables the electrical detection of viruses with an extremely low detection limit. This could lead to compact super-sensitive pathogen detection chips for point of care applications that have a high tolerance against false-positive signals.
Advances in micro- and nanoscale engineering have led to various mobile devices that either can move on solids or swim in fluids. Researchers are applying various strategies to designing nanoscale propulsion systems by either using or copying biological systems such as the flagellar motors of bacteria or by employing various chemical reactions. Many of these approaches are fairly complex and not necessarily suited for large-scale deployment in practical applications. Scientists have theorized about simpler designs for mechanical swimmers that avoid the complexities of biological mechanisms and use very few degrees of freedom.
Researchers in Spain have now demonstrated the experimental realization of a simple device made by microscopic colloidal particles which can be externally controlled and propelled at low Reynolds number condition, i.e. when the viscosity of the fluid dominates over the inertia of the object. This is the same condition that governs the motion of bacteria such as E. Coli or other micro- or nanoscale objects that move in a fluid.
Nanotechnology researchers are actively working on the beginnings of various nanorobotic systems that one day could lead to automated, assembly-line type nanofabrication processes. Last year we reported on a nanogripper, a kind of a robotic 'hand' some ten thousand times smaller than a human hand. This 'pick-and-place' device used a silicon gripper which was controlled by a nanorobotic arm and was capable of picking up a carbon nanofiber and fix it onto the tip of an atomic force microscope cantilever. One of the problems that is vexing researchers is that the nanoscale miniaturization of these grippers comes at the cost of reduced strength - the smaller the gripper, the weaker it becomes. Therefore what is needed is a gripper design that is strong enough yet sufficient flexible and small to handle tough materials like carbon nanotubes.
Experiments with graphene have revealed some fascinating phenomena that excite researchers who are working towards molecular electronics. It was found that graphene remains capable of conducting electricity even at the limit of nominally zero carrier concentration because the electrons don't seem to slow down or localize. This means that graphene never stops conducting. Taking advantage of the conducting properties of graphene, researchers now have described how graphene memory could potentially be used as a new type of memory that could significantly exceed the performance of current state-of-the-art flash memory technology. Their results show the possibility to build next-generation memory devices with vast amounts of memory using nanocables with a silicon dioxide core and a shell of stacked sheets of graphene.
The UK's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in a new report clearly states that it found no evidence of harm to health or the environment from nanomaterials but it believes that the pace at which such new nanomaterials are being developed and marketed is beyond the capacity of existing testing and regulatory arrangements to control the potential environmental impacts adequately. A major conclusion of the report is that nanomaterials are hugely variable in their nature. They are not a uniform class of materials, and attempts to regulate or legislate solely on the basis of their size or how they are made are misguided. It is the functionality of nanomaterials, i.e. what they do and how they behave, that matters and this should form the basis of governance and regulation. The report makes a number of recommendations on how to deal with ignorance and uncertainty in the area of nanomaterials, which could also be applied to other areas of fast-paced technological development.