Understanding Advances in Nanotechnology: Minimizing Risks and Maximizing Benefits with Application of the Appropriate Governance Framework

Understanding Advances in Nanotechnology: Minimizing Risks and Maximizing Benefits with Application of the Appropriate Governance Framework

Michael D. Mehta (Thompson Rivers University, Canada)
Copyright: © 2011 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/jnmc.2011040101
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“Nanotechnology” is a word that has come a long way. Until recently most people associated nanotechnology with science fiction-based accounts that tended to focus on fantastical devices and applications. Due to developments in nanoscience (e.g., greater control over atomic structure and relatively better predictability of nanoscale properties), nanotechnology has entered the commercial realm, and it has begun simultaneously to stimulate the development of new governance frameworks. In this article, the author discusses potential benefits and risks and examines a select set of frameworks for governing this technology.
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What Is Nanotechnology?

Nanoscience and nanotechnology are revolutionizing science and technology, while simultaneously challenging regulators and policymakers throughout the world (Mehta, 2002). These fields enable scientists to create organic and inorganic matter on an atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule basis, and a vast array of applications are transforming medicine, biotechnology, agriculture, manufacturing, materials science, aerospace, information technology, and telecommunications, to name just a few examples.

Since nanotechnology is a powerfully transformative technology, it is critical to understand many complex issues before the technology becomes too difficult to manage. Nanotechnologies are diverse and effects manifold, and it is likely that several decades will be required for these effects to be fully felt. Consequently, nanotechnology will coexist with established technologies rather than suddenly replace them, and the range and diversity of products on the marketplace, and in laboratories, that contain particles or structural features produced through applications of nanoscience is staggering, and somewhat alarming given the global absence of regulations specifically dedicated to these processes and products. A joint initiative between the Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts, entitled “The Project On Emerging Nanotechnologies,” provides on their website (http://www.nanotechproject.org/inventories/consumer/) with a searchable inventory of more than 1000 consumer products where the manufacturer has disclosed voluntarily that nanoscale processes are used (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Examples of common applications involving nanotechnology

The Benefits Of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology promises breakthroughs that will revolutionize disease detection and treatment, enhance environmental protection, produce and store energy, remediate contaminated soil, and lead to more targeted drug delivery (Table 1). There is even hope that advances in nanotechnology will be of direct value to the developing world (Salamanca-Buentello et al., 2005), and of course there are dissenting views as well (Mehta, 2008).

Table 1.
Sample areas and examples of anticipated advances in nanotechnology expected within the next decade or two
EnvironmentalRemediation of contaminated soil and water.
Reduction of the use of raw materials through improvements in manufacturing.
Rebuilding of the stratospheric ozone layer with the assistance of so-called ‘nanobots’ (also known as assemblers).
MedicalImprovement of diagnostic procedures.
Development of techniques in nanosurgery.
Repair of defective DNA.
Improvement of the delivery of drugs.
ElectronicImprovement of storage of data.
Development of molecular circuit boards.
Development of molecular computers.
MaterialsIncrease of the strength of industrially valuable fibers.
Replication of valuable products (e.g., food, diamonds).
Improvement of the quality and reliability of metals and plastics.
Manufacture of ‘smart’ materials.

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