Advanced nanotechnology: A memo to President-elect Obama

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. In its advanced form, which should be achieved within the next decade or two, the technology will allow a revolution in manufacturing – building powerful products with atomic precision from the bottom up – and could fundamentally alter our ability to confront challenging issues such as climate change.
In the United States, a new President is about to take office, and is expected to bring with him a totally new outlook on science. We think it’s important now to let Mr. Obama and his advisors know the most important factors about the near future of nanotechnology and its potential impacts, especially as it relates to climate change.
Some nanotechnology experts confidently predict that once exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing is achieved, our worries about global warming and climate change will be over. A relatively simple solution like billions of tiny balloons fitted with adjustable mirrors could, they say, give us all the control we will need to moderate warming and create preferred climate conditions.
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) and others with whom we share a similar technological outlook expect that this advanced form of nanotechnology is likely no further than twenty years away and perhaps could be here within ten years or even less. If it does arrive within that time frame, and if it can be applied to our climate problems as suggested above, then indeed at least some of our fears about the worst effects of global warming may be assuaged.
Of course, there are many other risks of molecular manufacturing that still will need to be faced, including severe economic disruption and the prospect of a new arms race.
But we will leave those aside for now and stay with the issue of climate change.
Worst case estimates from the most recent comprehensive IPCC report include the frightening possibility of a disastrous 6.4°C leap in average global temperatures – with higher figures nearer the poles – by the end of this century. Such a drastic rise likely would make agriculture, even life, almost impossible over much of the Earth.
Please note that these predictions are from the fourth major IPCC report and that with each subsequent report, which have been spaced five or six years apart, their findings have been more dire and their warnings more urgent. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the next IPCC report, due around 2012, will project yet more extreme scenarios for greenhouse gas levels, climate warming, and subsequent cataclysms.
One reason for the steadily increasing alarm found among climate experts is that they are only beginning to understand all the carbon feedback cycles that could make a bad situation far worse.
In summary, nearly all of the world's most informed scientists agree that catastrophic global warming is a real and worsening phenomenon. Those who know most about it seem the most worried by what they see ahead.
So, what should be done?
First, we strongly support the new administration’s stated intent to: a) Promote a strong and sustained program of energy conservation in the nations of the developed world, going well beyond the goals set in the Kyoto Protocol; b) Undertake urgent and sincere negotiations with the largest developing nations – especially China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Indonesia – to achieve agreements on target CO2 levels, phase out of coal use, and possibly carbon trading strategies; and c) Begin a major program to develop and implement alternative energies, including wind power, concentrated solar thermal power, and more.
But those efforts alone may not be enough. The potential impacts, both positive and negative, of other emerging technologies – especially advanced nanotechnology – must be accounted for. In order to accomplish this, we urge the following:
1. Move as quickly as possible in developing molecular manufacturing. Apply targeted government funds to support a variety of promising private sector and academic research efforts. Assuming that this long-sought goal is realized within the next ten to fifteen years, it may offer a short-cut to help avert the worst results of climate change. (Of course, it would be foolish to presume that any one technology or strategy will achieve all that is needed; other efforts must coincide as indicated.)
2. Set aside an equivalent amount of funding to study the implications of advanced nanotechnology, and to develop and ultimately implement comprehensive strategies to maximize safety, security, and responsible use on a cooperative international basis.
3. Prepare for disaster mitigation. Given that time is rapidly growing shorter for us to slow global warming before irreversible carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, it is essential that we begin preparing soon for the likely impacts of climate change. Sea level rises, increased storm frequency and intensity, droughts, floods, agricultural damage from shifts in growing regions and invasion of unfamiliar pests and diseases, and much more are in the offing unless we change direction very quickly. We may have a decade or two to make ready for what's coming – how well we use that time to prevent and/or alleviate suffering of our fellow humans (and other species) will show just how humane we truly are.
4. Explore geoengineering as a last resort. CRN believes that some geoengineering approaches may have merit, but that they should be studied in great detail before being attempted and should be modeled extensively and, if possible, trial tested before broad implementation. The risk of unanticipated consequences is just too great for us to act precipitously.
If the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology had our way, steps 1 and 2 above would get started in 2009, with step 3 to follow between 2010 and 2015, and step 4 after 2015 and only if shown to be absolutely necessary.
CRN has submitted this statement for inclusion in the Citizen's Briefing Book for U.S. President-elect Barack Obama. Our message there is titled "Advanced Nanotechnology – What, When, and Why."
We strongly encourage you to go to the website click on this link and VOTE UP our statement (assuming you agree with it, of course). The more points we acquire, the more likely the message is to be seen by the new President's staff.
In addition, we invite questions and comments from all interested parties.
By Mike Treder, Executive Director, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

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