Bad news usually stimulates a whole plethora of stories about how nanotech will find the solution, from airline bombs to global warming. Today’s publication of the Stern Report, which puts the cost of climate change to the global economy at 3.68 trillion pounds ( or seven trillion dollars), will be no execption.
Ecomomic predictions are always hard to validate, as we find with the claims about nanotech, but this type of report with its headline numbers will always move the environment up the political agenda, but what can nanotechnology contribute?
It’s a subject I have been looking at for a long time, and every couple of years I am lucky enough to be invited to the European Energy Venture Fair at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue in Switzerland. The location is significant; just around the corner is IBMs Ruschlikon research centre where the scanning tunneling microscope, the first instrument to be able to â€˜seeâ€™ atoms was invented, and without which we would have no nanotechnology. Swiss Re, one of the worlds largest reinsurance companies, were also one of the first to take a serious look at the potential risks of nanotechnologies.
A combined state of the art conference centre and hotel set in landscaped grounds with views over the Zurichsee is an ideal setting to attempt to sift through some of the hype that has surrounded the marriage of nanotechnologies and energy.
As the late Richard Smalley always used to say, the solution energy to the worlds energy problems lies in our better understanding of materials, whether we need to harness solar energy, drill deep boreholes to make use of geothermal energy, or simply improve energy efficiency. As nanotechnology is all about our better understanding of materials, I have to agree with Smalley, which was what led to me giving a keynote talk on The Impact of New Materials on Energy.
The conclusion was surprising to some. In the short term, we should not rely on huge breakthroughs blanketing the Sahara desert with solar cells or filling the North Sea with giant wind turbines, but simply accelerate the trend to using new materials to make existing products and processes more energy efficient. As any well briefed pundit should be able to tell you, composite materials (with or without nanoscale additives) have been quietly revolutionising the automotive and aviation industries for almost a decade.
The political knee jerk reaction will be to impose more green taxes, although any benefit from slashing carbon emissions in the UK to zero would be outweighed by increases in China and India within a matter of months. A better solution would be simply to increase reserach into materials that lead to better energy efficiency, from catalysts to aerogels, and make sure that these are cheap and widely available enough to improve matters on a global scale. Let’s hope a little of the any tax windfall will trickle through to the reserach community for positive and procative projects.
An interesting report from Oxford Analytica entitled “SCIENCE/TECHNOLOGY: R&D moves to developing countries” has the following rather worrying conclusion.
“A combination of economic and social pressures may push
more advanced research out of Europe and the United States and into
growing economies that have a human capital base that can support
science and technology research. The unintended consequence of
greater scrutiny of research in industrialised countries, which
inevitably increases the financial and transaction costs of research,
may be to reinforce this trend.”
With nanofear being this weeks zeitgeist, and mounting evidence of this trend, it’s a conclusion worth bearing in mind.
“We hope that Nanotechnology would make a significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s development and perhaps, make it a driving force for our emerging industries. So that Sri Lanka can become a leading economic force in the world.”
Good to see the use of “perhaps” although having participated in a few World Bank related calls with Sri Lanka we have discussed some possibilities for linking and exploiting natural resources to nanotech. The problem for small countries such as Sri Lanka is that most of the resources that they would want to exploit, such as palm oil, already exist in their regional competitors, from India to Malaysia, and many of these have more established and better funded nanotech programs.
Still 10/10 for effort, and good to see some realism from a government source.
“We were trailing behind the other countries, our scientists were always trying to catch up and by the time we try to develop industries, already the countries had developed industries that were leaders in the world. But here we have an opportunity, if we move quickly to become leaders ourselves.”
(Rival news site Lanka Everything garbles the names and the message, while inventing the new “London Advanced Technology Institute” and claiming that Cuba is a world nanotech leader.)
The New York Times (which we seem to be reading a lot these days along with our usual favourites The Economist and the Financial Times) picks up on our recent report “Nanotechnologies for the Food Industry” and elicits a quote of “”Compared to nanotechnology, I think the threat of genetic engineering is tame” from Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association.
Ronnie does have a point of sorts, although demonising the ‘nano’ component of food technologies misses the real point by a country mile. If I stroll around the corner to my local supermarket, it seems like half the stuff on the shelves is organic, from beef to soya milk, and if that’s not good enough there is a full blown organic market at Spitalfields every Sunday complete with hippie butchers and bakers who grow their own wheat and live in a windmill. As a result, anyone worried about the interaction of the modern world with their food can still live in central London rather than on a farm, and for hose who are less concerned I have every type of fast food and junk food from hamburgers to pakoras within a few minutes waddle.
Much of the world doesn’t have that luxury of choice, and if technology can help solve that, from golden rice to farmed salmon, then we should expending our energies in making sure that the ingenuity of the human race is used for the benefit of humanity rather than seeking blanket bans on technologies because we don’t understand them.
(The NYT piece is also reproduced in the International Herald Tribune without the graphics if you don’t want to register)
If you want to know where that $18 billion dollars of government funding has gone for nanotechnology research, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark if you guessed that a lot of it has gone to construction companies.
The latest scheme to enrich the construction industry in the Iberian peninsula comes from the Spanish and Portuguese Ministry of Technology with each sinking 15 million Euros into building a facility in Braga Portugal. That’s about 2/3 of all the nanotech cash available through the UKs MNT network, which at least resulted in a few facilities being built, and judging by past perfomance, will account for the entire Iberian nanotech budget from now until 2050.
It is especially bizarre considering that we reported in 2004 on a report from the European Commission “Towards a European strategy for nanotechnology” that Spain (along with Portugal) were right at the bottom of per capita spending on Nanotech. With its 4 cents per person spent on Nanotech, Spain invested 1.6 million Euros in nanotech in 2004.
Didn’t it cross any one’s mind to support actual research, or, god forbid, bridge the financing gap between a science project and a product. “Ay Caramba! We know nothing about technology senor, but we do like shiny new buildings, especially when lining our pockets is subsisided by the EU.”
To be fair to the Spanish, similar solutions to nanotech cash have been found in Italy, while in the UK paying consultants to do due diligence on consultants has a similar effect – that of keeping any cash out of the hands of the scientific community, but at least some did trickle through to fund research.
However, if anyone from Iberia could enlighten us as to why the research community is starved of cash and equipment, and many Spanish universities resemble those in devloping countries while the contruction industry is awash with cash and making acquisitions from Heathrow to Bucharest we will be happy to enlighten our readers.
Is this Europe’s fifth largest economy or a banana republic? It is increasingly hard to tell the difference.
I was interested to see a slight chink appearing in ETC’s opposition to nanotechnologies, who while berating purveyors of nanomedicine do admit that
“Nanotech R&D devoted to safe water and sustainable energy could be a more effective investment to address fundamental health issues.”
This highlights an issue that has been raised many times, whether there is any sense in lumping together all of these various technologies as ‘nanotech.’ From a scientific point of view it makes sense, as all of nanotechnology makes use of some size dependent property, but from the applications side it becomes increasingly unsustainable to oppose nanotechnology as a whole. The Woodrow Wilson Institutes listing of “consumer nanotech products” gives a simple illustration of how widespread and unconnected the applications of nanoscience have already become.
But this is not just a problem for groups such as ETC, it also provides a headache for governments attempting to grapple with the ever shifting sands of nanotechnologies. It is no longer sufficient to set up a broad based nanotechnology program, there has to be some focus. Indeed, rather than jumping on and off the latest scientific bandwagons, switching finding from micro to nano to bio, governments should be seeking to leverage the whole of science to create an economic effect, or to tackle major global issues.
Strengthening the whole of science, from education through to encouraging and financing entrepreneurs to tackle these issues would be far more effective, both economically and politically.
Technology fans the ETC group are back on the attack with a new report “NanoRx” which worries over the possibilities over “two tier humans” and the failure of richer nations to provide solutions to developing world problems.
Unfortunately it is just another cheap shot, building a straw man of nanotechnology in order to vent the groups anger at perceived global injustice. Having secured a victory in Europe on GMO’s the group is still taking a rather counter productive and somewhat Maoist “if people have to die to achieve our political aims then so be it” attitude to nanotechnologies.
As usual, who will have access to medicine, nano or not, is not a question that scientists can answer, but one for politicians to deal with. Who knows, perhaps ETC can rope in Prince Andrew and Bono?
Following on from our recently released food report, the Nano4Food Conference returns for its Second Annual Event after its successful inaugural event in Wageningen, The Netherlands in June 2005.
This year, the event moves to the United States in Atlanta, GA, and is scheduled for October 12-13, 2006 at the Food Processing Technology Division at Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) Conference Center. Full details on the agenda, speakers and registration are available here.
One of the areas where nanotechnologies and chemistry become almost indistinguishable is in the food industry. Chances are that unless you grown your own food, most of what you eat will have had some contact with chemistry, whether it is packed under inert gas to prolong shelf life, or in the case of highly processed food, consists almost entirely of chemically modified raw materials.
It is also a very emotive subject, and while people do worry about GMO’s in food, they tend to care far less about the number of other chemicals that go into food, from hydrogenated oils to flavourings and colourings. Groups such as ETC have sought to exploit these fears with the invention of green goo, a nightmare scenario involving the confusion of nanotechnology and biotechnology.
It’s amazing that people get so worked up about nanotechnologies in food when there is so little on the supermarket shelf that you can buy today. However, a quick glance at the ingredients list on any processed food will show you the impact that chemistry has already had, and in every market, from textiles to plastics, where chemistry goes, nanotech is never far behind.
In order to restore a little sanity to nanofood, we have just produced an in depth analysis of nanotechnologies in the food industry, and the result is that we now have a very clear idea of where and what the effect of nanotechnologies will be, and when.
While the food industry is already a trillion dollar market (that is packaging, processing, safety and additives and not agriculture) nanotechnologies only account for 410 million dollars of that total. However we predict a ten fold increase in the value of nanotechnologies to 5.8 billion dollars by 2012, although this increase is not uniform across every sector. Some sectors are so cost sensitive that nanotechnologies will only have in impact on very high value added products, whereas other markets need a number of nanotechnologies to unlock their potential.
Unlike a few of the other reports we have seen on nanotech and food, and as regular readers would expect, we don’t see desktop nanofactories churning out unlimited free food before 2012. As a result, we are confident that we have finally generated a realistic estimate of the markets for nanotechnologies in the food industry, and may even restore an element of balance to a somewhat overhyped and misunderstood sector.