Some pictures from Taiwan Nano 2011 – including the now inevitable nanotech toilet!
Technology Review, besides being a great magazine edited by Jason Pontin, who I have known since the heyday of Red Herring, also puts on some great conferences. So I was excited and honoured to be invited to EmTech Spain, a two day conference in Malaga focussing on emerging technologies.
Along with my World Economic Forum colleague Javier García Martínez of Rive Technology and the University of Alicante, we were discussing what nanotechnology is, how to build a business out of it, and where it will take us.
Normally at these kind of conferences, discussing everything from the future of cities to social media, nanotech is one of the most futuristic and least understood technologies on the agenda – making me feel like a cuckoo in the nest when most peoples idea of emerging technology is something that they can have on their iPhone next week. However the “imagine a world where…” speech was given by Richard Kivel this time, discussing regenerative medicine, while Javier and I discussed existing and future applications of nanotechnologies.
So what use is nanotechnology? Simple, I think is makes a key contribution to addressing issues such as energy and health, allowing us to support today’s 7 billion and tomorrow’s 10 billion people in an increasingly sustainable manner. You can read my thoughts in the original Spanish, or as a rougher and less polished Q&A in English below.
1. If we make a more efficient use of resources (energy, agriculture, water) through technology, could a growing population (eg, India or China) join the living and consumption standards of the developed world?I’m an optimist about technology, after all it has got us this far, supporting another billion people every 12-14 years which would have been unimaginable only a hundred years ago. New technologies certainly help us make better use of resources but we have to remember that many of those resources – fossil fuels, minerals – are finite and their use does come at an environmental and social cost. If the plan was to continue with the same age old patterns of consumption, take-make-waste, then the answer to this question would have to be no. But in step with new technologies we are moving towards new patterns of consumption, with the energy balance shifting away from fossil fuels to renewables such as solar harvesting and biomass. So life in the 21st Century for China and India won’t all be Cadillac Eldorados, as social and economic pressures shift us into new modes of consumption. What I do think we will see is more sustainability, whether in energy or food, and new technologies being used to proactively prevent disease and pestilence – as we have already seen from genetically engineered plants to point of care medical diagnostics – rather than simply cleaning up the mess.
2. This increase of efficiency due to the use of technology, must run in parallel with a reduction in consumption?Although we think technology moves fast – not many people predicted the iPhone or Facebook – the big leaps forward, the ones that are really transformative take 15-30 years. The internet didn’t just appear in 2000, it was the combination of a range of different technologies maturing over the previous 30 years that made it usable, accessible and transformative. So we have to reduce consumption in the short term while we wait for the long term benefits of technology to kick in.
3. One of the main Cientifica´s aims is to ”set up and design technology and commercialization programs for governments around the world”. In which projects is involved and which challenges is facing now?In the last ten years we’ve advised everyone from Europe and the US to a number of Gulf and African states. The challenge is always the same, how to make the best use of your resources to get an economic impact. The most successful nanotechnology programs, for example, are in countries such as the US, Japan and Germany where industry is hungry for new technologies to maintain global competitiveness. But the research has to be appropriate, there is no point in setting up a centre focussed on semiconductors if the benefits of that research will end up in Singapore or San Jose.
4. What are the main differences between a nanotechnology program designed for Spain and one designed for South Africa, EEUU or China?
In some respects Asian programs are easier to design because there is more likely to be a long term vision of where the economy should be in 5, 10 or 20 years. In the rest of the world politician have to be convinced to continue programs every few years so it is important to be able to show results. I’m always an advocate of giving the funding to small innovative companies, the ones with high growth potential which will have the biggest economic effect in terms of jobs and tax revenues, but many agencies prefer a conservative approach, giving cash to large established industries which although reducing the chance of failure, also reduces the potential economic benefits.
5. One of Cientifica´s key ideas is that success in business depends not only on innovation but also in putting together technology and a global trend. Will nanotechnology be a standing out technology platform compared to others? Could you cite another three examples of technologies that would play an important role in the future?Catching a trend is a must for any innovation based business. It can be a a technology trend such as Apple managed with mp3 audio, or a social trend such as Facebook, but having the right product at the right time is the most important factor in success. But nanotechnology is no more a platform than chemistry or physics – it’s the application of the technology that matters, and that often involves intersecting with other areas of emerging technology.Choosing three technologies out of all of those enabled by nanotechnologies is hard, but let’s start with organic, or plastic electronics, medical diagnostics and instrumentation.Organic electronics means we print electronics, using inks containing nano particles which make them conducting or semiconducting, with a modified inkjet printer. So the cost of a printed electronics fab is around 10% of the cost of a silicon fab, and energy use is cut by 90% too. But don;t expect organic electronics to start competing with silicon. The CMOS technology developed over the past 50 years is very advanced and more importantly well characterised. What this means is that we can design a process t make a chip, and everything, from the yield of working devices to the input costs will behave pretty much as we expect. By contrast organic electronics in its infancy. It wont be able to make super fast processors like CMOS, but it has the advantage of being very very cheap, so when we talk about ubiquitous electronics or the ‘internet of things’ then a lot of those ‘things’ will be printed.Medical diagnostics is another area that is ‘on trend.’ The use of all kinds of nanosensors, from quantum dots through carbon nanotubes to printed detectors addresses the problem of ageing populations and rising healthcare costs. Early diagnosis saves a huge amount of cost for health services and medical insurance companies. Combine this with genotyping to see what diseases you may be susceptible to, and also which treatments will work best and the balance of healthcare can shift from intervention to prevention.Given my background in analytical instruments, I’d also have to add scientific instruments as a key enabler. Better instrumentation has enabled us to really start understanding how a lot of biological processes work, from the bottom up, and the more we understand about nature the easier it is to try to copy a few of those tricks.
6. More and more knowledge is being generated thank to computing and science interaction, but that growth is not proportional to the available capital to turn this ideas into products. Where can we find ways to finance early stage technology business, especially those that need a big inversion like cleantech/biotech start-ups?This is the problems of the technology overhang. When we look at the worlds major problems we may already have a number of the technologies we need to start addressing them proactively, but unless we can find the right mechanisms to turn scientific innovation into usable technology then we will have wasted our effort. The innovation process is much more inefficient than most people imagine, relying on someone spotting the potential of a bit of science, that potential somehow being funded and then the resulting company having the right people with the right skills and the right timing to get it to market. Venture capital isn’t too much help. Why bother with hard to understand, risky, expensive and long term stuff like nanotechnology when it only takes a couple of guys with a few laptops to create the next Facebook – and you’ll know whether it will work in 18 months rather than 5 years.One of our projects which arose from work we have done with the World Economic Forum, is the creation of a Centre for Emerging Technology Intelligence which will look at the longer term issues and attempt to find ways to make the innovation process more efficient. It;s clear that we can;t just wait for a disater to happen and then expect to pluck the technological solution from a tree, we have to be much more proactive. But in doing this we have to also find the win-win-win situation for technology, business and society. While some emerging technologies may result in clear economic benefits for the developers, this is only a subset of the technologies available. In many cases the creation of shared public-private responsibility for their development may be the catalyst that unlocks the full potential of the technologies.The new model is built on the premise that up-front investment in resources, knowledge and people will lead to a significant reduction in future liabilities. Its success depends therefore on a commitment to invest in technology innovation in new ways. This does not necessarily mean new financial investment, although in some cases this may be warranted. Rather, it implies strategic investment in research, in knowledge translation, in networks, in systems and in people, which increases the likelihood of technology innovation supporting long-term social and economic development.
7. In which emerging technology would you recommend to invest in the coming years? Which countries and institutions will be the main investors?I particularly like the area where life sciences, nanotechnology and information technologies are combining. Areas such as synthetic biology and regenerative medicine are already demonstrating their own versions of Moore’s law, and the development of cheap point of care diagnostics addresses so many economic and societal issues, while also circumventing major headaches such as privacy and data security concerns.
8. In terms of climate change and sustainability, carbon productivity will be a major concern for the industry. Is a priority to invest economic resources in developing CCS technologies or would be better to spend them in installing renewable energies that do not emit CO2?
I think we need to be a bit more ambitious in our outlook. Solar and wind energy are fine, but they don’t really address the cause of the problem, or come up with any kind of integrated or sustainable solution. If we are serious about climate change, and we should be, then we need bold ambitious and global projects to address it, making use of the widest possible range of technologies. Even if we cut carbon emissions to zero tomorrow the CO2 already in the atmosphere will cause major effects for the next hundred millennia, so sticking a solar panel on your roof and cycling to work makes hardly any difference. Of course we need both CSS and renewables in the short term, but we need to look kore than ten years ahead.9. If we already have the technology to address global problems such as water shortages and disease… What are the real reasons of not being using it now? Who owns this kind of technologies and how are they like?
In many cases the reason is economic, the people most affected by water shortages and disease are those least able to pay. Our model for CETI puts a lot of emphasis on social in addition to financial entrepreneurship. Successful partnerships have already demonstrated the power of this approach, such as the Gates Foundation support of new metabolic routes to the production of the anti-malarial drug artemicinin – the technology platform allows the producer to develop other more economically viable drugs while making the anti malarial drugs available at low cost.
10. Will solar energy be able to provide energy security if a rise of efficiency is achieved due to nanotechnology breakthroughs? When do you estimate that we would reach that security status?
Solar will only ever be a part of the energy solution. We also have to look at storage and transmission in order to produce a workable solution. Billions have already gone into organic photovoltaics – the development of cheap plastic solar cells – and I’m confident that the current issues of efficiency and lifetime can be overcome. But its not the only solution, for example the planet creates 170 billion tones of biomass a year, of which we utilise around 7 billion tons, another massively under-used resource which could enable biotech based solutions such as bioreactors to play an important part in energy security. However, this creates another problem for Europe in that we cannot produce all the biomass we need for energy generation, so if we are not dependent on hydrocarbons from the middle east and Russia , we may be equally dependent on biomass imported from Africa!
Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and re evaluate what we are doing and why, something my good friend Doug Mather of the Creation Company has been urging people to do for years. It is very easy, whether in science or in business to develop myopia or tunnel vision, concentrating so hard on one particular task or goal that the rest of the world slips by almost unnoticed.
I find my release from the pressures of keeping up with science and running a number of businesses by hill walking – getting blown around on the top of Pen-y-Ghent or picking my way through the granite pillars of the Sierra de Guadarrama allows me to switch off from email and phone calls for long enough to ponder the big issues rather than picking through the daily list of to do’s.
Part of this big picture thinking led to the publication by the World Economic Forum yesterday of a new paper I authored with Andrew Maynard where we set out how we see the Role of Technology Innovation in an Increasingly Interdependent, Complex and Resource-constrained World.
You can download the full paper here, but in summary we are asking a very simple question – How can technology be best used to improve the lives of everyone on the planet?
While there have been some recent backlashes against technologies recently, and at many meetings of NGOs I attend there is some deep suspicion that technology is the result of a sinister conspiracy by governments and businesses, technology has almost always been a force for good.
Obvious examples are the harnessing of fire, and the invention of agriculture, which started the transition of humans from hunter-gatherers to philosophers and Internet addicts. But perhaps the most startling transformation over the past fifty years has been in medicine, with many diseases that were killers being irradiated or, in the case of an increasing number, becoming chronic conditions. One hundred years ago few people who went into an operating theatre came out alive, now it’s the vast majority.
But that is all in the past, and while we often think that technology is chugging along quite nicely as we browse Facebook on our iPads, we have to take that steep back and wonder whether technology is capable of addressing the big issues? Can an iPad help with meeting the energy demands of an increasingly wealthy world, or help avert wars over scarce resources such as water?
The vision that we set out in the paper is one where we take a longer term view of emerging technologies and their uses. To enable the increasing range of emerging technologies to be harnessed for good of everyone requires some new thinking about why and how we develop technologies, as we explain over at the World Economic Forum’s blog.
Through the work of the World Economic Forums Global Agenda Councils, we are developing and deepening inter linkages between emerging technologies and groups looking at other global issues, from climate change to innovation. In the scientific community we are preaching to the converted, but it is now time to take the message to the politicians and business leaders, the people who make the real decisions.
At last weeks Nanotechnology for High performance Motorsport meeting, one of the participants, from a Formula One team, commented that he thought the current FIA regulations precluded the use of nanomaterials.
A bit of digging around in the current regulations (thanks to Chris Walker for unearthing this) only finds the following prohibition on using carbon nanotubes incorporated within carbon fibres, although given the difficulty of making an accurate distinction between nanotubes, nanofibres and carbon fibre it would be interesting to know which definition the is FIA using.
Carbon fibres manufactured from polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor which have :
- a tensile modulus ? 550GPa ;
- a density ? 1.92 g/cm3 ;
- unidirectional or planar reinforcement within their pre-impregnated form, not including three dimensional weaves or stitched fabrics (but fibre reinforcement using Z-pinning technology is permitted) ;
- no carbon nanotubes incorporated within the fibre or its matrix ;
- a permitted matrix, not including a carbon matrix.
As far as I know, nanotechnology was used in the 2009 season, with McLarens KERS system using A123s nano phosphate lithium ion batteries as a result of their combination of weight and charge/discharge capacity. It certainly seems that other than the specific regulation above, there are no limits to what can be applied, and the ingenuity of motorsport engineers is second to none.
Of course were anyone except Ferrari to gain a substantial technical advantage from nanotechnology we may see the regulations being tweaked, but in general this is done to close loopholes that the use of novel materials may allow engineers to exploit, rather than to ban a whole technology.
The best barometer of the health of the economy is often taxi drivers, but if you want to know the health of the UK Nanotechnology ‘Industry’ an event in London this month probably tells you all you need to know.
This exciting FREE one-day event is targeted at senior representatives from: companies involved in nanotechnology; or looking to develop new high tech products; regulators and other interested parties. This seminar will help you understand the challenges facing commercialisation. The day will cover all aspects of commercialisation from innovation, to regulation and other requirements for success of nanotechnology in the UK.
The problem is that the conference program has plenty of finger wagging about challenges, REACH, health and safety, insurance and consumer resistance but the organisers seem to have failed to find that elusive success story, or indeed anything innovative at all.
The best they could come up with is a ‘speaker tbc’ from Intrinsiq (formerly QinetiQ) Materials who have spent the last ten years valiantly trying to commercialise nanomaterials long beyond the point where any sane company would have given it up as a bad job.
One often suspects that there are more people paid to worry about nanotechnology in the UK than there are actually doing it.
I don’t like nanomaterials companies very much. In fact they are usually nothing but trouble. If they are not squandering huge amounts of investors money chasing non existent markets then they are having messy legal spats with competitors and suppliers, or even prancing around bringing hugely expensive but ultimately pointless libel suits against anyone who questions their business model. Anyway, not to worry, most of them have either gone bust or found something more useful to do with their nanotech expertise than trying to put carts before horses and good riddance.
I’ll be doing my best to avoid a lynching at tomorrow’s Nanomaterials 2010 conference where I will be talking about “Trends and opportunities in the nanomaterials marketplace” – something I’m pretty sure that I will be able to manage without jumping up and down yelling “nanomaterials are the new gold so give me all your money” (actually as we and the World Gold Council proved a while ago, Gold is the new Gold).
However we do need to make use of nanomaterials to address a number of pressing issues caused by rising populations and declining resources unless we all want to go back to the Dark Ages, and this is where I think the opportunities lie, and perhaps this time it won’t be just large chemical producers who can take advantage.
If we look at most of our current crop of ‘sustainable’ technologies, from hybrid vehicles to wind turbines and solar arrays they are rubbish. There is absolutely no comparison with the elegance of nature’s solutions, almost all of which are built from the bottom up and which I often refer to as ‘materials by design’, a subject of eternal debate with my nanoclastic colleague Dexter Johnson. We need to start thinking seriously about how we can use our new found control over the properties of materials to address resource issues, create clean water and of course double food production in the next forty years, not producing tons of stuff that no one will ever want just because we can.
I spent last weekend in a rather hot Doha (Qatar), surrounded by Emirs, Queens, Princes and Prime Ministers at the World Economic Forums Global Redesign Initiative meeting. It’s an organization I have been involved with for the past six years, through both the Technology Pioneers program and the Global Redesign Initiative.
As the world changes at an ever increasing pace, with new challenges from the financial, technology and natural worlds coming thick and fast, there have been questions over whether international institutions, from the United Nationals to the International Monetary Fund are able to cope.
“Today’s institutions are organized to solve yesterday’s problems” – Mark Malloch Brown, World Economic Forum Global Redesign Meeting, Doha, May 2010
A large part of the change, from the time when most institutions were set up in the aftermath of the second word war has been the explosive growth in communication. When the UN was founded television was only available to a very few people, whereas in 2010 almost five billion people have access to the Internet. The proliferation of Internet enabled devices from iPhones to sensors and the expanding use of social networking such as Twitter and Facebook would have been unimaginable even thirty years ago when the Internet was still an emerging technology.
But technology can present a hazard as well as a risk. While presenting many opportunities that benefit the planet such as raising awareness of global issues and encouraging international cooperation, the Internet can also be used for identity theft and spreading pornography, or even challenging the legitimacy and authority of governments.
With all emerging technologies to date, from the Internet to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the understanding of the implications by governments and international institutions has lagged way behind the deployment of the technology.
The same is true for the emerging technologies of the 21st Century. Nanotechnologies, synthetic biology and geoengineering have undoubted potential for good, especially in proactively addressing the issues which will inevitably arise in a world where nine billion people face increasing competition for resources, from food and water to power and natural resources. But equally inevitable is the potential for misuse, from home brew bioterrorism to environmental pollution, and in the case of geoengineering the potential for global disaster even though technologies may have been deployed with the best of intentions.
These emerging technologies, and their inter-linkages with civil society have the potential to shape and reshape our world even more profoundly than the Internet, and the ease of access to information and computing power means that in the 21st century world changing breakthroughs are as likely to come from the mind of student as from a large multinational corporation.
The reactive nature of institutions is inherent in their nature, and we are proposing the creation of a mechanism to support faster, more fact based decision-making, and to provide the knowledge which would enable a proactive approach to be taken to both the risks and the opportunities arising from 21st Century emerging technologies.
The full proposal for the Centre for Emerging Technology Intelligence is contained in the WEFs Global Redesign Initiative report, and you can also download a copy here.
I’m happy to say that the idea is receiving increasingly strong support from both Governments and companies who are increasingly realizing that in today’s world, taking a passive and reactive approach to global issues will be always more expensive than developing risk avoidance technologies in advance.
You can see (and hear) more about the WEF Global Redesign Initiative below
According to JP Morgan, flying to 21186 miles to Melbourne and back for a clean tech conference generated 5.63 tonnes of carbon dioxide, but unlike most conferences on this subject the hot air emissions were negligible.
The Sir Mark Oliphant Cleantech: Mainstream and at the Edge conference was refreshing for the positive outlook on cleantech rather than the self flagellation that usually goes along with this kind of event. While there were a few graphs showing frightening population statistics, with dire predictions of resource and energy use, they were mostly used to illustrate how a combination of human ingenuity and technology could be used to solve problems. None of the speakers even suggested smashing the corrupt capitalist system as happens so often at green events.
From my perspective, as hopefully a purveyor or at least enabler of technology based sustainability, the advantage of this kind of event is to see what the real drivers are, the market for the technology, and then try to find the science and engineering to solve the problem. This probably explains my rapt attention to talks like Stefan Hajkowicz’s excellent overview of Megatrends (the full report is available here), which looked at the “trends, patterns of economic, social or environmental activity that will change the way people live and the science and technology products they demand.”
I wasn’t too happy about the use of data from a rather flawed WEF risk report which identified nanotechnology as a risk on a par with an asset price collapse, a slowing Chinese economy, oil and gas price spikes, extreme climate change related weather, pandemic, biodiversity loss and terrorism. We seem to keep finding echoes of the grey goo fears of ten years ago in these kind of documents, something for the science communication experts to ponder.
Also fascinating was Ellen Sandell’s talk on her work with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, a mobilisation of 50,000 young people who just couldn’t wait for Copenhagen, Davos or Canberra to reach an agreement, or for the Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace to stop politicking and decided to get things moving themselves.
So given that we know what to expect, and we have no lack of youthful enthusiasm to push us along, there’s no real excuse not to act. We should be demanding of our politicians that we develop new technologies not new taxes, and that we use our scientific knowledge of the natural world to make it a better place.
The news gets even better, as many of the speakers mentioned, in that you can make the world a better place and make money.
The Sir Mark Olifant Cleantech conference has been a lot of fun so far, from Eric Isaac’s opening overview of the the issues (and solutions) to Stefan Hajkowicz’s analysis of megatrends that will shape our future technology development.
I’m still struck by how much cleantech seems to be focused in a few rather obvious areas, something which effectively prices a lot of technologies out of the market, and the excessive valuations thus generated tend to make it almost impossible to get a return for most investors. Sometimes meeting the problem head on isn’t the best strategy, and it is better to wait until a problem has been cracked and then capitalise on the myriad opportunities that spin out – as with mobile phones you don’t have to invent the device to make money from it.
My focus is more on how nanotechnology, by its nature is more akin to what nature does. As Eric Isaacs mentioned this morning, we are almost at the stage where we can create materials by design, or in his his words ‘we can almost taste it’ – something that opens up a whole new world of sustainable everything.
A preview of my presentation is available here – with the caveat that it works better if you hear me tell the story behind it!