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Nanotechnology – The Next Revolution

Interview with Dr. Eric Werwa

Dr. Eric Werwa is a legislative assistant in Rep. Mike Honda's Washington office, where he is responsible for nanotechnology legislation and policy. He joined the office as the 2001-2002 Materials Research Society/Optical Society of America Science and Technology Policy Fellow, and became a staff member following the conclusion of his fellowship year.

Prior to joining Mr. Honda's staff, Eric spent four years as an Assistant Professor of Physics at Otterbein College in Westerville, OH. He holds a PhD in Electronic Materials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he did his thesis research on silicon nanoparticles, and a BS in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, where he did undergraduate research on fullerenes.

How long have you been handling nanotechnology policy for Congressman Honda, and why did you decide to work in this field?

I have been working for Congressman Honda since October 2001, when I joined his office as an AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] Science and Technology Policy Fellow, sponsored by the Materials Research Society and the Optical Society of America. My technical background is in the area of nanotechnology – I have been working in the field since 1991. I have a BS in Materials Science from the University of Pennsylvania, where I did undergraduate research on fullerenes, and a PhD in Electronic Materials from MIT, where I did my thesis work on silicon nanoparticles. Rep. Honda's particular interest in nanotechnology really picked up in early 2002 when he visited NASA's Ames Research Center and its Center for Nanotechnology. Following that visit, I began to spend much more of my time on nanotechnology policy.

Why is nanotechnology so important for Mr. Honda?

Certainly a major reason is that he represents Silicon Valley, and nanotechnology is seen as the next logical step in the progression of miniaturization that has driven the high-tech economy of his Congressional district. So he sees it as a way to generate jobs and stimulate economic development. But he also believes that much of the research in nanotechnology that he has learned about has the potential to do great public good, from generating clean energy to purifying water to providing affordable shelter for those who need it to curing cancer, and he wants to do what he can to help achieve these goals.

Do you think nanotechnology will revolutionize science and society?

I do believe nanotechnology will be revolutionary, but it will take us some time to get to that point. Right now, most of the nanotechnology research being done and products being developed are evolutionary, either doing existing tasks with nanoscale materials or taking incremental steps beyond the current state of the art. The promise of nanotechnology is that by exercising control at the atomic and molecular level, new materials can be made in entirely new ways. This has the potential to dramatically change manufacturing as we know it, reducing the energy consumed to make things and reducing the amount of material wasted in these processes. These might rise to the level of revolutionary in the sense that in the future, manufacturing may no longer be done in large factories. This has enormous societal implications for workers and the workforce, and for the kind of transportation infrastructure we need--worker commuting patterns and shipping routes would be drastically altered. If new products made in new ways are so durable that they don't need to be replaced, that has major implications for the people who are currently employed doing those replacements. These could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Should governments try to regulate the development of nanotechnology? If yes, how? Do you think they are able to do so?

Governments currently regulate many things to ensure their safety, and I do not see why nanotechnology should be different. Current regulations would in fact apply to nanotechnology. For example, the EPA regulates chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which would apply to nanotechnology chemicals. There will need to be changes in how such regulations are applied, however. Currently, TSCA is based on chemical composition, so nanoscale silicon would be treated just the same as a cube of silicon ten inches on edge. The problem is, the whole point of making nanoscale silicon is that the size matters – by making the material very small, you get new properties and new chemical reactivity from what happens in the bulk – but the way TSCA is applied now, these things wouldn't be tested. So we need to take care to make sure that our existing regulatory frameworks can be properly applied, and if they cannot, we devise new approaches that can provide the same safeguards for nanotechnology.

Do you think that there is enough funding for nanotechnology research in the US, compared to the European Union or Asian countries?

The legislation Rep. Honda introduced with Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Bohelert, the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (HR 766) which was approved by the US House of Representatives increases funding for nanotechnology research and development activities supported by the federal government. This legislation should address past research funding differences between the US and other nations. The area of most concern, however, is the disparity in government support for the commercialization of nanotechnology discoveries. Other nations invest far more than the US in helping to bring research results out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. In the US, many say this should be left to the private capital markets, but history has shown that there is a chronic underinvestment in enabling technologies such as nanotechnology because individual investors cannot capture all the returns from their investment. It is in this area that I feel the US needs to do more, and Rep. Honda is working to move forward on this.

Will the development of nanotechnology have any effects on developing countries and if so, which effects?

It is essential that the benefits of the nanotechnology revolution be shared more broadly than the benefits of the information revolution of the 1990s, which were concentrated in countries that were already developed. If nanotechnology really does lead to a new way of manufacturing that does not require large factories, this will mean that developing companies can compete more easily than in the current world, in which large investments are needed. I think the areas in which the impact can be the greatest are applications of nanotechnology to producing clean, abundant energy (still to be developed or in development) and for providing clean water. Nanotech filtration devices could contribute greatly to improved health in developing countries.

Will the environment suffer or profit from nanotechnology?

I do not know that we can definitively say at this point. There are opportunities for great benefits to be realized in the areas of clean energy generation, increased energy efficiency due to new processes, reduced materials waste and pollution from manufacturing, nanotechnology based environmental remediation techniques (such as the recently announced discovery that metal nanoparticles can be used to clean groundwater, water filtration, and other possible breakthroughs). But there are also possible dangers, as we have seen with other new chemicals in the past. Now, we need to concern ourselves not only with new chemical compositions, but with new chemical reactivity based on the size and structure of nanoscale materials, and so we will need to be even more diligent to ensure that harmful substances are not released into the environment, where they could have unforeseen effects.

Do you see any practical and/or ethical concerns in using nanotechnology in medicine (e.g. implanting machines in humans / physiological immortality through cell repair and augmentation)?

There are certainly concerns with using nanotechnology in this way. First and foremost, we need to be sure that nanotechnology used to treat diseases does not do more harm than good. While this rule of thumb should apply to all medical technologies, the small size of nanotechnology may raise particular concerns. In the long term, many questions are raised by the possibilities of implanting machines in humans that could improve human performance in a variety of ways. At present, these applications are still the stuff of science fiction, but it is critical that we think about these issues before the applications become reality, because at that point we cannot undo them. Do we really want a world where those who can afford the technology can live forever and be always healthy, while those who are less fortunate financially cannot enjoy such benefits? These questions are much bigger than the ones scientists and engineers are answering in the lab, and we need to involve people from all walks of life in deciding what to allow and what to prevent.

What do you think will be the military benefits of nanotechnology? Will there be a new arms race with nano-weapons? Who would be the opponents?

In the short term, the benefits will be in the protection of soldiers. Work is already underway to develop improved armor and uniforms that can protect the wearer from incoming projectiles and can be "smart," sensing the physiological state of the soldier and administering care if needed. Sensors above the field and in uniforms will help track the movements of troops on the battlefield, which will prevent friendly fire and reduce casualties. Science fiction has told tales of nano-weapons, and I do not think there is any reason to believe that a nano-weapon could not be developed. The question is, do we want to open this door or not? It might be possible to develop a non-lethal nano-weapon, which would be preferable to today's lethal weapon. But we might also end up with a nano-weapon of mass destruction that we would regret. We made this mistake with nuclear weapons before and have spent years trying to get rid of them.

What should governments do to prevent a misuse of nanotechnology in the above mentioned fields?

In the context of nano-weapons, governments could enter into treaties limiting or banning the development and/or use of nano-weapons. To do this before any such weapon has even been conceived will require great foresight, and as such will be difficult to achieve. In the context of sensors that can be beneficial on the battlefield, they might also then be employed domestically, which could increase homeland security but at the same time result in threats to privacy. This is going to require diligence on the part of defenders of privacy to ensure that this right is not unduly infringed upon.

Please specify (if not mentioned above), what are the greatest benefits resulting from nanotechnology? the greatest dangers?

Rick Smalley, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of fullerenes, has stated that he believes access to clean, abundant energy is the solution to the world's problems--because with enough energy, most of the other major problems can be solved--and that nanotechnology could offer ways to achieve this. This could be nanotechnology's greatest benefit, if it can fill this role.

One great danger that I fear is that nanotechnology will simply follow the model of other advanced technologies, providing benefits only to the developed world and merely widening the gap between the developed and developing countries.

The "grey goo" danger is one that is often talked about, that nanotechnology will "come alive" and replicate itself and take over. It is important to understand that we are far from anything that could ever do this at this time. But we should not discount the remote possibility that it could happen; rather we should be sure that when new devices or techniques are developed, it is done in a way that cannot run out of control. In fact, a great danger to nanotechnology is that fears of these science fiction scenarios prevent the public from accepting a safe new technology with great promise.

Nikos Nikolidakis, Free University Berlin, 2003 Fall intern