Nanotechnology: The biggest little thing going
The biggest thing in science right now is smaller than you can imagine. Nanotechnology is a brave new world containing the likes of carbon nanotubes and buckyballs which promises an array of technological advances every bit the equal of the information revolution: better medical treatments; lighter, more efficient building materials; tougher sporting equipment.
An example of nanotechnology is the production of antimicrobial bandages which are covered in nanoparticles of silver ions that at the nanoscale are anti-microbial by attaching to microbes and preventing their cellular respiration, thus destroying them.
The result is a bandage which doubles as a medicine when used to dress a wound.
Then there are carbon nanotubes: a carbon tube just a few nanometres in diameter yet relatively speaking very long. The ratio of the tube’s length to diameter can be up to 132,000,000:1 which vastly exceeds anything that can be achieved in the making of tubes on a scale visible to the human eye.
Carbon nanotubes are very strong without being dense. Materials that are made up of carbon nanotubes are therefore very strong yet very light: great for golf clubs. Already Wilson has developed a driver which uses carbon nanotubes.
But just as carbon fibre started in sports equipment and graduated to become the base material for the Boeing Dreamliner, one can imagine that the builders of cars, planes and trains will also be interested in the possibilities of carbon nanotubes for building lightweight structures that are more fuel efficient.
Nanotechnology is the result of a scientific convergence on the ultra-small. Everything from the study of DNA to the desire to make computers more compact has seen scientists squinting their eyes and focussing on the tiny. The collaboration of these different scientific endeavours has seen the blossoming of nanotechnology: the ability to manipulate particles on a near atomic scale.
A nanometre is 10-9 of a meter. The relationship between a nanometre and a metre is the equivalent of the relationship between a marble and the planet earth. But the most important thing about nanotechnology is that at the nanoscale the properties of materials can change.
Two weeks ago I launched the Australian Academy of Science report on nanotechnology. The report was encouraging in its findings that both research and publications around nanotechnology are on the increase. So too are the number of collaborations between Australian and international researchers. It paints a picture of a technology that the Australian scientific community is well and truly embracing.
While recommending a robust framework for a co-ordinated collaborative national effort to develop nanotechnology, the report also urges government to work on “the development of science-based regulation and direct community engagement on nanotechnology issues”.
It is a message the Rudd Government hears loud and clear. For while new technologies bring with them an almost boundless sense of hope for what the future might hold, they also bring fear. Just look at the response of some to genetically modified products.
In that case science has itself to blame for failing to take the community with it. The result has been an uniformed hysteria by a few which has hampered the development of a technology which stands to benefit the many.
At the same time, concerns about the genuinely unknown are both rational and justified, and the advocates of new technologies must be ready to address these concerns.
Because we do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past – and because nanotechnology has such tremendous potential – both the scientific community and the Rudd Government are dealing with nanotech in a very different way to maximise the potential of nanotechnology while minimising any risks.
On the same day as the launch of the Academy’s report, the Innovation Minister, Senator Kim Carr, launched the Government’s National Emerging Technologies Strategy.
This strategy is underpinned by a $38.2 million commitment over four years to provide a platform for the uptake of new technologies, not the least of which is nanotechnology.
This will include: developing the means to measure the outcomes of nanotechnology in all its forms; putting in place appropriate regulation of nanotechnology; and, most importantly, addressing health and safety concerns.
This strategy is fundamental and will ensure that as the nanotechnology train leaves the station the entire Australian community is on board.
Climbing the technological ladder is at the heart of the future success of Australian manufacturing and industry. There are many steps along the way which will need to be large, but there is one giant step that will only be viewed through the most powerful of microscopes.
That step is nanotechnology, and the Rudd Government is determined to ensure that Australia takes it.
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