There’s a lot of valuable information and insight along with an almost old-fashioned approach to the politics in the October 6, 2010 article, Big continent and tiny technology: Nanotechnology and Africa, by Kathy Jo Wetter of the ETC Group. The article is well written and researched. Here’s an excerpt from the its technical explanation of nanotechnology,
Nanotechnology is a suite of techniques used to manipulate matter on the scale of atoms and molecules. Nanotechnology speaks solely to scale: Nano refers to a measurement, not an object. A nanometre (nm) equals one-billionth of a metre. Ten atoms of hydrogen lined up side-by-side equal one nanometre. A DNA molecule is about 2.5nm wide (which makes DNA a nanoscale material). A red blood cell is enormous in comparison: about 5,000nm in diameter. Everything on the nanoscale is invisible to the unaided eye and even to all but the most powerful microscopes….
Key to understanding the potential of nanotech is that, at the nanoscale, a material’s properties can change dramatically; the changes are called ‘quantum effects’. With only a reduction in size (to around 300nm or smaller in at least one dimension) and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new characteristics – such as electrical conductivity, increased bioavailability, elasticity, greater strength or reactivity – properties that the very same substances may not exhibit at larger scales. For example, carbon in the form of graphite (like pencil ‘lead’) is soft and malleable; at the nanoscale carbon can be stronger than steel and is six times lighter; nanoscale copper is elastic at room temperature, able to stretch to 50 times its original length without breaking.
The point that some countries might choose to block the importation of nanomaterials due to issues around risk (as per the participants in a regional awareness-raising workshop in the Côte d’Ivoire) is well taken. From the article,
Here was a group of experts in Africa questioning the received wisdom of nanotechnology’s central role in solving the problems of the developing world, even going so far as to suggest that in some cases it may make sense to ‘say no to nano’.
I thought this next passage was particularly cogent,
Because nanoscale manipulations are now possible and, because the basic components of both living and non-living matter exist on the nanoscale (e.g., atoms, molecules and DNA), it is now possible to converge technologies to an unprecedented degree. Technological convergence, enabled by nanotechnology and its tools, can involve biology, biotechnology and synthetic biology, physics, material sciences, chemistry, cognitive sciences, informatics, geoengineering, electronics and robotics, among others. At the nanoscale there is no qualitative difference between living and non-living matter.
I first came across the statement about there being no appreciable gap between living and nonliving matter in a book about philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s work, Process and Reality (which was written in the late 1920s). At the time, that statement affected my thinking profoundly and forced me to examine my assumptions about the boundaries between living and nonliving matter.
Getting back to the article, the section about market impact is interesting and problematic for me,
The most direct impact of new designer materials created using nanotechnology is multiple raw-material options for industrial manufacturers, which could mean major disruptions to traditional commodity markets. It is too early to predict with certainty which commodities or workers will be affected and how quickly. However, if a new nano-engineered material outperforms a conventional material and can be produced at a comparable cost, it is likely to replace the conventional commodity. History shows that there will be a push to replace commodities such as cotton and strategic minerals – both heavily sourced in Africa and critical export earners – with cheaper raw materials that can be sourced or manufactured by new processes closer to home.
Yes, if manufacturers can find a way to make their products cheaper, they will certainly do that regardless of whom may get hurt as Americans found out when production of various electronics products was outsourced to places where labour is cheaper. As for reliance on commodities for export, Canadians know that story well.
What seems to have been ignored in Wetter’s article is the pressure to produce more closer to home for environmental reasons. It’s at this point that the article starts to lose credibility for me.
The section on Health and Environmental Aspects is carefully designed to evoke great concern while remaining nominally truthful,
While there is great uncertainty about the toxicity of nanoparticles, hundreds of published studies now exist that show manufactured nanoparticles, currently in widespread commercial use (including zinc, zinc oxide, silver and titanium dioxide) can be toxic.
Damning all uses of the nanoparticles (as named in the article) seems as helpful as announcing that peanuts,which are in widespread commercial use, can be toxic. Interestingly, the author does not mention the use of zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide nanoparticles in sunscreens which have been given a cautious passing grade by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). (I last posted about nanosunscreens and the EWG, June 16, 2010.)
Yes, people should have concerns and more research on environmental and health impacts of nanomaterials and nanotechnology-enabled products is urgently needed but the article, unless very carefully read, could be deemed misleading with regard to health and environmental impacts.
The section I was specifically referring to when I described this article has having an old-fashioned approach to the politics comes at the end with, Who’s in Control?,
Many who envision nanotech bringing benefits to Africa ignore the realities of technology transfer and intellectual property. Intellectual property is being driven by the North and promotes the interests of dominant economic groups, both North and South. A 2006 study reported that Africa accounts for just 0.4 per cent of all patents granted throughout the world, while the United States and Europe together account for 81.8 per cent.
More than 12,000 patents in the field of nanotechnology have been awarded, granted over three decades (1976–2006) by the three offices responsible for most of the world’s nanotech patenting – the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), the European Patent Office and the Japan Patent Office. As of March 2010, close to 6,000 nanotech patents had been granted by the USPTO and a further 5,184 applications were waiting in the queue. Multinational corporations, universities and nanotech start-ups (primarily in the OECD countries) have secured ‘foundational patents’ on nanotech tools, materials and processes – that is, seminal inventions upon which later innovations are built – and nanotech ‘patent thickets’ are already causing concern in the US and Europe.
While I agree with much of the analysis, I think the author does not seem to be aware that China is quickly catching up (or has China already caught up?) to the US in terms of claiming patents for advances in science and technology.
The reference to North and South seems dated to me especially in light an alliance (as cited in the article itself) between India, Brazil and South Africa,
South Africa is also a player in a cooperative nanotech R&D programme under the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA). Nanotech is one area of science collaboration, led by India, funded by a US$3 million trilateral research pool.
The geopolitics are changing rapidly and couching the discussion about developing/emerging economies and nanotechnology in terms coined more than 30 years ago seems counterproductive. For anyone who’s interested, do read the article because there’s lots of good material but caution needs to be exercised.