Tag Archives: nanotechnology

Managing risks in a world of converging technology (the fourth industrial revolution)

Finally there’s an answer to the question: What (!!!) is the fourth industrial revolution? (I took a guess [wrongish] in my Nov. 20, 2015 post about a special presentation at the 2016 World Economic Forum’s IdeasLab.)

Andrew Maynard in a Dec. 3, 2015 think piece (also called a ‘thesis’) for Nature Nanotechnology answers the question,

… an approach that focuses on combining technologies such as additive manufacturing, automation, digital services and the Internet of Things, and … is part of a growing movement towards exploiting the convergence between emerging technologies. This technological convergence is increasingly being referred to as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, and like its predecessors, it promises to transform the ways we live and the environments we live in. (While there is no universal agreement on what constitutes an ‘industrial revolution’, proponents of the fourth industrial revolution suggest that the first involved harnessing steam power to mechanize production; the second, the use of electricity in mass production; and the third, the use of electronics and information technology to automate production.)

In anticipation of the the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF), which has the fourth industrial revolution as its theme, Andrew  explains how he sees the situation we are sliding into (from Andrew Maynard’s think piece),

As more people get closer to gaining access to increasingly powerful converging technologies, a complex risk landscape is emerging that lies dangerously far beyond the ken of current regulations and governance frameworks. As a result, we are in danger of creating a global ‘wild west’ of technology innovation, where our good intentions may be among the first casualties.

There are many other examples where converging technologies are increasing the gap between what we can do and our understanding of how to do it responsibly. The convergence between robotics, nanotechnology and cognitive augmentation, for instance, and that between artificial intelligence, gene editing and maker communities both push us into uncertain territory. Yet despite the vulnerabilities inherent with fast-evolving technological capabilities that are tightly coupled, complex and poorly regulated, we lack even the beginnings of national or international conceptual frameworks to think about responsible decision-making and responsive governance.

He also lists some recommendations,

Fostering effective multi-stakeholder dialogues.

Encouraging actionable empathy.

Providing educational opportunities for current and future stakeholders.

Developing next-generation foresight capabilities.

Transforming approaches to risk.

Investing in public–private partnerships.

Andrew concludes with this,

… The good news is that, in fields such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology, we have already begun to develop the skills to do this — albeit in a small way. We now need to learn how to scale up our efforts, so that our convergence in working together to build a better future mirrors the convergence of the technologies that will help achieve this.

It’s always a pleasure to read Andrew’s work as it’s thoughtful. I was surprised (since Andrew is a physicist by training) and happy to see the recommendation for “actionable empathy.”

Although, I don’t always agree with him on this occasion I don’t have any particular disagreements but I think that including a recommendation or two to cover the certainty we will get something wrong and have to work quickly to right things would be a good idea.  I’m thinking primarily of governments which are notoriously slow to respond with legislation for new developments and equally slow to change that legislation when the situation changes.

The technological environment Andrew is describing is dynamic, that is fast-moving and changing at a pace we have yet to properly conceptualize. Governments will need to change so they can respond in an agile fashion. My suggestion is:

Develop policy task forces that can be convened in hours and given the authority to respond to an immediate situation with oversight after the fact

Getting back to Andrew Maynard, you can find his think piece in its entirety via this link and citation,

Navigating the fourth industrial revolution by Andrew D. Maynard. Nature Nanotechnology 10, 1005–1006 (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.286 Published online 03 December 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Shining a light on Poland’s nanotechnology effort

Last week I managed to mention Mongolia’s nanotechnology center (my Nov. 29, 2013 posting) and now I get to feature Poland here thanks to a Nov. 29, 2013 news item (also from last week) on Nanowerk,

Strengthening the nanotechnology capabilities of a key institute in Poland will enable the country to upgrade research on biomaterials and alternative energy. It will also help further integrate the country in the European Research Area (ERA).
Nanotechnology has been instrumental in creating many new materials and devices that offer numerous applications from biomaterials to alternative energy, representing an important driver of competitiveness within the ERA. The EU-funded project

‘Nanotechnology, biomaterials and alternative energy source for ERA [European Research Area] integration’ (NOBLESSE) is supporting Poland in strengthening its research capabilities in this pivotal field.

To achieve its aims, NOBLESSE is procuring new equipment for the academy, in addition to strengthening links with other institutes, promoting twinning activities and enhancing knowledge transfer. …

Already, the project team has installed an advanced scanning electron microscope, created a new laboratory in the IPC PAS, the Mazovia Center for Surface Analysis (which is one of the most advanced in Europe), and built an open-access Electronic Laboratory Equipment Database (ELAD) that documents research equipment available in specialised laboratories across Poland.

There is more about the NOBLESSE project from this webpage: http://ec.europa.eu/research/infocentre/article_en.cfm?id=/research/star/index_en.cfm?p=ss-noblesse&calledby=infocentre&item=Energy&artid=28137&caller=SuccessStories (article published Nov. 15, 2012),

The use and control of nano-structured materials is of great importance for the development of new environmentally friendly materials, more efficient energy sources and biosensors for medical analysis. The European Noblesse project is boosting a Polish academy’s capabilities to research these developments.

… Such is the scope for the development and application of nanotechnology that nano-structured materials are in high demand. To meet this demand, nano-science institutes need to rise to the challenges that modern society presents.

This is one of the driving forces behind the Noblesse project which aims to establish the Institute of Physical Chemistry, Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC-PAS) as an integrated partner and respected participant in the European nano-science community.

Through a combination of newly purchased, state-of-the-art equipment – financed by EU FP7 funding – and a programme of recruitment and training, Noblesse promises to position IPC-PAS as a leading research centre in Europe and beyond.

Significant progress

The project has already made great strides towards bringing new nanotechnology applications to the market place and in promoting the career development of a team of young, dedicated researchers in the field.

“In the first year of the project, we filed 49 patent applications, 25 of them abroad – most of which are nanotechnology patents,” says Professor Robert Holyst, the project coordinator. “I am not aware of any institute in Poland filing more patent applications than us at the moment.

“We have also established two spin-off companies, thanks to the valuable influence of our advisory board members from industry,” he adds. Tomasz Tuora, who is on the advisory board of the Noblesse project, is the main investor in Scope Fluidics Ltd and Curiosity Diagnostics Ltd, Prof. Holyst explains. “While the Noblesse grant did not promise to set up spin-off companies in the Institute, we did promise to collaborate and develop ties with industry,” he says.

According to Prof. Holyst, the two companies plan to make products for the medical sector and have each employed between 10 and 20 scientists to develop new nanotechnology applications.

The creation of spin-off companies from IPC-PAS is unlikely to end there if an application for a €1.3 million-grant from the NCBIR, the Polish funding agency for applied research, is successful. “We are currently applying for this grant to develop and later commercialise the SERS (surface enhanced resonance spectroscopy) platform for molecular diagnostics,” Prof. Holyst explains. “If we are successful in our application, we’ll establish a new spin-off company for this purpose.”

,The 2013 news item on Nanowerk does not mention the commercialization project referred to in the 2012 article. Good luck to the NOBLESSE team and I look forward to hearing more about the nanotechnology effort in Poland.

Internship at Science and Technology Innovation Program in Washington, DC

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is advertizing for a media-focused intern for Spring 2013. From the Dec. 12, 2012 notice,

The Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is currently seeking a media-focused intern for Spring 2013. The mission of STIP is to explore the scientific and technological frontier, stimulating discovery and bringing new tools to bear on public policy challenges that emerge as science advances.

Specific project areas include: nanotechnology, synthetic biology, Do-It-Yourself biology, the use of social media in disaster response, serious games, geoengineering, and additive manufacturing. Interns will work closely with a small, interdisciplinary team.

  • Applicants should be a graduate or undergraduate student with a background or strong interest in journalism, science/technology policy, public policy and/or policy analysis.
  • Solid reporting, writing and computer skills are a must. Experience with video/audio editing and new media is strongly desired.
  • Responsibilities include assisting with the website/social media, writing and editing, helping produce and edit short-form videos, staffing events and other duties as assigned.
  • Applicants should be creative, ready to engage in a wide variety of tasks and able to work independently and with a team in a fast-paced environment.
  • The internship is expected to last for 3-5 months at 15-20 hours per week. Scheduling is flexible.
  • Please include 2-3 writing samples/clips and links to any video/documentary work.
  • Compensation may be available.

To apply, please submit a cover letter, resume, and brief writing sample to stipintern@wilsoncenter.org with SPRING 2013 INTERN in the subject line.

There doesn’t seem to be any additional information about the internship on the Wilson Center but you can check for yourself here. Good luck!

Thoughts on part 3 of (PBS) Nova’s Making Stuff series

Since the title of the programme was Making Stuff Cleaner, my hopes were up. Anyone who reads me with any frequency knows that I’m obsessed with windows, especially the self-cleaning type. Sadly, my hopes for part 3 of (PBS) Nova’s Making Stuff series were frustrated as the focus was largely on cars (with Jay Leno being prominently featured) and petroleum products as they pertain to climate change and energy requirements.

Leno, for anyone who may not know, is a serious car collector and, as one could see, he’s also well informed about the history of the car and alternatives to the car’s current reliance on petroleum products.

As I’m learning to expect, they didn’t talk about the nanotechnology research for several minutes. I didn’t time it for part three but in part one it was roughly 30 minutes before they got to it.

There was a lot of discussion about the various kinds of batteries that are available and new, more environmentally clean batteries being developed, while we got to watch a lot of people driving cars.

The car companies are also working on materials to replace the plastics that are used in car interiors. Fascinatingly, one project involves growing a car part from bacteria. (This reminds of a visual artist who grows clothing from bacteria as mentioned in my Bacteria as couture and transgenic salmon? posting, July 12, 2010.)

It was a very upbeat, positive take on the work being done to find new energy sources and to deal with climate change issues. I think that someone using this programme as a primary source of information might be persuaded we are much closer to replacing our use of petroleum with more environmentally sound practices than is the case. The Friends of the Earth (FoE), civil society group, released a fairly pointed report in November 2010 titled, Nanotechnology, climate and energy: Over-heated promises and hot air?, which suggests otherwise. I’m given to understand that there is good research in this report but anything not supporting their main thesis has been omitted.

The two agendas: Making Stuff Cleaner programme and FOE’s report, curiously enough, mirror each other with their relentless insistence on interpreting the information in a light that highlights their perspective only. Let’s not discount either; let’s refer to both, judiciously.

I did miss part 2 of the series, Making Stuff Smaller and cannot view it on the PBS website since I’m  not living in the right region. Next week, the fourth and final part: Making Stuff Smarter.

ETA Feb.4.11: According my NISE Net newsletter for Feb. 2011, tonight’s episode of tv programme Jeopardy will feature Making Stuff  as a full category. (For anyone not familiar Je0pardy,  it’s a quiz show where contestants choose categories of answers for which they must determine the questions. E.g. The category ‘Whose Bob?’ might feature the clue ‘birds’ to which the contestant would reply, ‘What kind of animal are bobolinks?’)  I’m not sure how including the category ‘Making Stuff’ will work given that there’s one more episode to be broadcast. From the newsletter,

For those of you Jeopardy! fans out there, Making Stuff will be a full category on the program airing Friday, February 4th.

McGill green chemistry breakthrough in Québec Science’s top ten list; cinnamon green chemistry

McGill University researchers, Chao-Jun Li, Audrey Moores and their colleagues, earned their spot in Québec Science’s top 10 list of 2010 with a nanotech catalyst that makes it possible to reduce the use of toxic heavy metals from chemical processes. From the news release,

Catalysts are substances used to facilitate and drive chemical reactions. Although chemists have long been aware of the ecological and economic effects of traditional chemical catalysts and do attempt to reuse their materials, it is generally difficult to separate the catalyzing chemicals from the finished product. The team’s discovery does away with this chemical process altogether.

Li, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Organic/Green Chemistry, neatly describes the new catalyst as a way to “use a magnet and pull them out!” The technology is known as nanomagnetics and involves nanoparticles of a simple iron magnet. Nanoparticles are sized between 1 and 100 nanometres (a strand of hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide). The catalyst itself is chemically benign and can be efficiently recycled. In terms of practical applications, their method can already be used to generate the reactions that are required for example in pharmaceutical research, and could in the future be used to achieve reactions necessary for research in other industries and fields. The discovery was published in Highlights in Chemical Science in January 18, 2010, in an article authored by Li, Moores, Tieqiang Zeng, Wen-Wen Chen, Ciprian M. Cirtiu, and Gonghua Song.

Li is known as one of the world’s pioneers in Green Chemistry, an entirely new approach to the science that tries to avoid the use of toxic, petrochemical-based solvents in favour of basic substances. More than 97 per cent of all products we use involves one or more chemical reactions. The future of not only the trillion-dollar chemical industry, but also the overall economy and the health of ecosystems and populations around the world rests on our ability to find sustainable solutions to chemical use. With 25 key researchers, 117 graduate students and more than 15 postdoctoral fellows working at ways to reduce the toxicity of chemical processes, McGill is a recognized global leader in the field. The University’s pioneering work in Green Chemistry dates back to the 1960s, when phrases such as “chemicals from renewable resources” and “non-polluting chemicals” were used.

The magazine, Québec Science, is asking its readers to vote by Feb. 25, 2011 for the top discovery of 2010. You can go here to vote (you will need to be able to read French).

Feb. 17, 2010, I featured this McGill team’s 2010 green chemistry (starting in the 3rd paragraph).

Since we’re on the topic of green chemistry, I now have the opportunity to mention a Nov. 29, 2010 news item on Nanowerk about how cinnamon could be used to replace dangerous chemicals used to create nanoparticles (from the news item),

Gold nanoparticles, tiny pieces of gold so small that they can’t be seen by the naked eye, are used in electronics, healthcare products and as pharmaceuticals to fight cancer. Despite their positive uses, the process to make the nanoparticles requires dangerous and extremely toxic chemicals. While the nanotechnology industry is expected to produce large quantities of nanoparticles in the near future, researchers have been worried about the environmental impact of the global nanotechnological revolution.

Now, a study by a University of Missouri research team, led by MU scientist Kattesh Katti, curators’ professor of radiology and physics in the School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Science, senior research scientist at the University of Missouri Research Reactor and director of the Cancer Nanotechnology Platform, has found a method that could replace nearly all of the toxic chemicals required to make gold nanoparticles. The missing ingredient can be found in nearly every kitchen’s spice cabinet – cinnamon.

… The new process uses no electricity and utilizes no toxic agents. …

During the study, the researchers found that active chemicals in cinnamon are released when the nanoparticles are created. When these chemicals, known as phytochemicals, are combined with the gold nanoparticles, they can be used for cancer treatment. The phytochemicals can enter into cancer cells and assist in the destruction or imaging of cancer cells, Katti  said.

“Our gold nanoparticles are not only ecologically and biologically benign, they also are biologically active against cancer cells,” Katti said.

As the list of applications for nanotechnology grows in areas such as electronics, healthcare products and pharmaceuticals, the ecological implications of nanotechnology also grow. When considering the entire process from development to shipping to storage, creating gold nanoparticles with the current process can be incredibly harmful to the environment, Chanda [Nripen Chanda, a research associate scientist] said.

Counterbalancing some of this ‘feel good’ green chemistry news focused on reducing environmental impacts posed by chemical processes is a report debunking some the nanotechnology community’s ‘green’ claims, released Nov. 17, 2010, by the Friends of the Earth (FoE), Nanotechnology, climate and energy: Over-heated promises and hot air? You can view the report here. There’s also a new report, released Dec. 17, 2010,  from the ETC Group, The Big Downturn? Nanogeopolitics. As you can tell from the title, the report is more of an overview (it’s an update of a 2005 report) but it does provide information about green nanotechnology. I hope to have some time in the next month or so to discuss these reports rather than just refer to them.

Arxis, healing with liquid bone

I spotted this Dec. 8, 2010 news item about liquid bone on the Azonano website,

Here’s the vision: an elderly woman comes into the emergency room after a fall. She has broken her hip. The orthopaedic surgeon doesn’t come with metal plates or screws or shiny titanium ball joints.

Instead, she pulls out a syringe filled with a new kind of liquid that will solidify in seconds and injects into the break. Over time, new bone tissue will take its place, encouraged by natural growth factors embedded in the synthetic molecules of the material.

Although still early in its development, the liquid is real. In the Brown engineering lab of professor Thomas Webster it’s called TBL, for the novel DNA-like “twin-base linker” molecules that give it seemingly ideal properties. The biotech company Audax Medical Inc., based in Littleton, Mass., announced on Dec. 7 an exclusive license of the technology from Brown. It brands the technology as Arxis and sees similar potential for repairing broken vertebrae.

In chasing down more information about this particular liquid bone technology, I went to Brown University’s website to find an article by David Orenstein,

In some of his work, Webster employs nanotechnology to try to bridge metals to bone better than traditional bone cement. But TBL is an entirely new material, co-developed with longtime colleague and chemist Hicham Fenniri at the University of Alberta. [emphasis mine] Fenniri synthesized the molecules, while Webster’s research has focused on ensuring that TBL becomes viable material for medical use.

The molecules are artificial, but made from elements that are no strangers to the body: carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. At room temperature their aggregate form is a liquid, but the material they form solidifies at body temperature. The molecules look like nanoscale tubes (billionths of a meter wide), and when they come together, it is in a spiraling ladder-shaped arrangement reminiscent of DNA or collagen. That natural structure makes it easy to integrate with bone tissue.

Yes, there is a University of Alberta connection! In fact, Fenniri (his university webpage is here) also works for Canada’s National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in the Supramolecular Nanoscale Assembly group (webpage here). Why isn’t NINT making some sort of an announcement about this? (I digress.)

Back to the bone. You can see a video demonstration of the liquid bone by visiting the  Orenstein article on the Brown University website. The following image is also from the Orenstein article,

Buttressing bones Twin-based linker molecules, top left, self-assemble into six-molecule rings. Stacked in a tube shape, the rings of molecules not only provide a new scaffold for bone growth, but can also store growth factors and helpful drugs inside. Credit: Websterlab/Brown University

While this is a promising development, there are yet to be any clinical trials,

The molecules are artificial, but made from elements that are no strangers to the body: carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. At room temperature their aggregate form is a liquid, but the material they form solidifies at body temperature. The molecules look like nanoscale tubes (billionths of a meter wide), and when they come together, it is in a spiraling ladder-shaped arrangement reminiscent of DNA or collagen. That natural structure makes it easy to integrate with bone tissue.

In the space within the nanotubes, the team, which includes graduate student Linlin Sun, has managed to stuff in various drugs including antibiotics, anti-inflammatory agents, and bone growth factors, which the tubes release over the course of months. Even better, different recipes of TBL, or Arxis, can be chemically tuned to become as hard as bone or as soft as cartilage, and can solidify in seconds or minutes, as needed. Once it is injected, nothing else is needed.

“We really like the fact that it doesn’t need anything other than temperature to solidify,” Webster said. Other compounds that people have developed require exposure to ultraviolet light and cannot therefore be injected through a tiny syringe hole. They require larger openings to be created.

For all of TBL’s apparent benefits, they have only been demonstrated in cow bone fragments in incubators on the lab bench top, Webster said. TBL still needs to be proven in vivo and, ultimately, in human trials.

I gather it will be years before we can expect to experience the scenario (breaking a hip and being injected with liquid bone) that opened this posting.

Thinking about nanotechnology, synthetic biology, body hacking, corporate responsibility, and zombies

In the wake of Craig Venter’s announcement (last week) of the creation of a synthetic organism (or most of one), Barack Obama, US President, has requested a special study (click here to see the letter to Dr. Amy Gutmann of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues). From Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog (May 26, 2010) posting,

It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough.

This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House. But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation.

The new “synthetic biology” epitomized by the Venter Institute’s work – in essence the ability to design new genetic code on computers and then “download” it into living organisms – heralds a new era of potentially transformative technology innovation. As if to underline this, the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce will be hearing testimony from Craig Venter and others on the technology’s potential on May 27th – just days after last week’s announcement.

Andrew goes on to suggest while the ethical issues are very important that safety issues should not be shortchanged,

The ethics in particular surrounding synthetic biology are far from clear; the ability to custom-design the genetic code that resides in and defines all living organisms challenges our very notions of what is right and what is acceptable. Which is no doubt why President Obama wasted no time in charging the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look into the technology.

But in placing ethics so high up the agenda, my fear is that more immediate safety issues might end up being overlooked.

Hilary Sutcliffe in an opinion piece for ethicalcorp.com (writing to promote her organization’s [MATTER] Corporate responsibility and emerging technologies conference on June 4, 2010) suggests this,

Though currently most of the attention is focused on the scientists exploring synthetic biology in universities, this will also include the companies commercialising these technologies.

In addition, many organisations may soon have to consider if and how they use the applications developed using these new technologies in their own search for sustainability.

This is definitely an issue for the ‘Futures’ area of your CSR [corporate social responsibility] strategy, but there is a new ‘ology’ which is being used in products already on the market which may need to be moved up your priority list – ‘Nanotechnology’ or (‘nanotechnologies’ to be precise) – nano for short.

What I’m doing here is drawing together synthetic biology, nanotechnology, safety, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). What follows is an example of a company that apparently embraced CSR.

In the wake of BP’s (British Petroleum) disastrous handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notion of corporate social responsibility and  ethics and safety issues being considered and discussed seriously seems unlikely. Sure, there are some smaller companies that act on on those values but those are the values of an owner and are not often seen in action in a larger corporate entity and certainly not in a multinational enterprise such as BP.

Spinwatch offers an intriguing perspective on corporate social responsibility in an article by Tom Borelli,

To demonstrate “responsibility”, BP spent huge sums of money on an advertising campaign promoting the notion that fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide is to blame for global warming and its investment in renewable energy was proof the company was seeking a future that was “beyond petroleum”.

The message was clear: oil is bad for society and BP is leading the way in alternative energy.

The BP experience shows there are serious consequences when companies demagogue against its core business. …

… “If you drew up a list of companies that Americans are most disappointed in, BP would definitely feature,” said James Hoopes, professor of business ethics at Babson College, Massachusetts.

Ironically, BP’s experience delivered the exact opposite of CSR’s promise: the company’s reputation was ruined, the company is the target of government agency investigations and Congressional hearings and its stock price lags far behind its competitors and the S&P 500.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of BP’s failures, many critics blamed corporate greed – not CSR – as the cause. They believed the profit motive forced the company to skimp on basic pipeline maintenance and worker safety.

This conclusion is far from the truth. If profit were its only goal, BP would define its role in society as a company that safely producing oil while providing jobs and energy for the economy.

This article was written in 2006 and presents a view that would never have occurred to me. I find Borelli’s approach puzzling as it seems weirdly naïve. He seems to be unaware that large companies can have competing interests and while one part of an enterprise may be pursuing genuine corporate social responsibility another part of the enterprise may be pursuing goals that are antithetical to that purpose. Another possibility is that the company was cynically pursing corporate social responsibility in the hope that it would mitigate any backlash in the event of a major accident.

Getting back to where this started, I think that nanotechnology, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies require all of the approaches to  ethics, safety rules, corporate social responsibility, regulatory frameworks, and more that we have and can dream up including this from Andrew (from May 26, 2010 posting),

Rather, scientists, policy makers and developers urgently need to consider how synthetic biology might legitimately lead to people and the environment being endangered, and how this is best avoided.

What we need is a science-based dialogue on potential emergent risks that present new challenges, the plausibility of these risks leading to adverse impacts, and the magnitude and nature of the possible harm that might result. Only then will we be able to develop a science-based foundation on which to build a safe technology.

Synthetic biology is still too young to second-guess whether artificial microbes will present new risks; whether bio-terror or bio-error will result in harmful new pathogens; or whether blinkered short-cuts will precipitate catastrophic failure. But the sheer momentum and audacity of the technology will inevitably lead to new and unusual risks emerging.

And this is precisely why the safety dialogue needs to be grounded in science now, before it becomes entrenched in speculation.

You can read more about the science behind Venter’s work in this May 22, 2010 posting by Andrew and Gregor Wolbring provides an excellent roundup of the commentary on Venter’s latest achievement.

I agree we need the discussion but grounding the safety dialogue in science won’t serve as a prophylactic treatment for public panic. I believe that there is always an underlying anxiety about science, technology, and our place in the grand scheme of things. This anxiety is played out in various horror scenarios. I don’t think it’s an accident that interest in vampires, werewolves, and zombies is so high these days.

I had a minor epiphany—a reminder of sorts—the other night watching Zombiemania ( you can read a review of this Canadian documentary here) when I heard the pioneers,  afficionados and experts comment on the political and social implications of zombie movies (full disclosure: I’m squeamish  so I had to miss parts of the documentary).This fear of losing control over nature and destroying the natural order (reversing death as zombies and vampires do) and the worry over the consequences of augmenting ourselves (werewolves, zombies and vampires are stronger than ordinary humans who become their prey) is profound.

Venter’s feat with the bacterium may or may not set off a public panic but there is no question in my mind that at least one will occur as synthetic biology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology take us closer to real life synthetic and transgenic organisms, androids and robots (artificial humans), and cyborgs (body hackers who integrate machines into their bodies).

Let’s proceed with the discussions about safety, ethics, etc. on the assumption that there will be a public panic. Let’s make another assumption, the public panic will be set off by something unexpected. For the final assumption, a public panic may be just what we need. That final comment has been occasioned by Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’ (Wikipedia essay here). While the notion is grounded in economics, it has a remarkably useful application as a means of understanding social behaviour.

China, nanotechnology, and a roadmap update

I was happy to find an article offering an overview of China and its nanotechnology efforts (with a special emphasis on its nanobio efforts) as I’m always eager to learn more about one of the juggernauts in this field of research. The article by Al Scott and Eliza Zhou in the Life Science Leader offers this nugget (amongst others),

In April 2005, China became the first country to issue national standards for nanotechnology, thereby laying the groundwork for international standards and improving its clout in the global nanotechnology market.

This article is a welcome addition to the little information I have about China’s nanotechnology efforts. I had a few niggles. I didn’t find as much detail about the standards and China’s efforts to lay the groundwork for international standards (are they participating in international organizations’ efforts? are they leading their own international efforts?) in the article as I would like. Also, the authors don’t offer any citations, sources, or links for more information.

Luckily, the joint China/Springer [publishers] project is the process of rolling out a number of books about China and its science and technology plans as per this announcement,

Springer and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announce the publication of strategic reports planning the next 40 years of progress in science and technology (S&T). … All reports are co-published in English by Springer and Science Press. The Chinese edition is published by Science Press.

The first volume of the book series, the general report, analyzes the evolution and laws governing the development of science and technology [emphasis mine], describes the decisive impact of science and technology on the modernization process, and calls for China to be fully prepared for this new round of S&T advancement. Supported by illustrations and tables of data, the volumes will provide researchers, government officials and entrepreneurs with guidance concerning research directions, the planning process, and investment. The CAS invited the nation’s most experienced and respected scientists and engineers to contribute to the reports.

Currently available,

– General Report – Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-04822-7

– Energy Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05319-1

– Space Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05341-2

– Marine Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05345-0

– Science & Technology of Public Health in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05337-5

– Advanced Materials Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05317-7

– Science & Technology of Bio-hylic and Biomass Resources in China: A Roadmap to 2050
ISBN 978-3-642-05339-9

June 2010 is when the nanotechnology roadmap, amongst others is due,

– Mineral Resources Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Ecological and Environmental Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Water Resources in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Agricultural Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Information Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Hydrocarbon Resources in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Advanced Manufacturing Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Regional Development in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Large-Scale Scientific Facilities in China: A Roadmap to 2050

– Key Interdisciplinary Cutting–Edge Science and Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050

Nanotechnology in China: A Roadmap to 2050 [emphasis mine]

– Country and Public Safety in China: A Roadmap to 2050

Each road map is individually priced, for example,  the general report is $59.95 and the energy road map is $99.00 (both presumably in US dollars).

Smart windows in The Netherlands and in Vancouver

Michael Berger at Nanowerk has written a good primer on smart windows while discussing a specific project from The Netherlands. From Berger’s article,

‘Smart’ windows, or smart glass, refers to glass technology that includes electrochromic devices, suspended particle devices, micro-blinds and liquid crystal devices. Their major feature is that they can control the amount of light passing through the glass and increase energy efficiency of the room by reducing costs for heating or air-conditioning. In the case of self-powered smart windows the glass even generates the energy needed to electrically switch its transparency.

Smart windows can be electrochromic and/or photochromic. From an article by Alan Chen, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, titled, New Photochromic Material Could Advance Energy-Efficient Windows,

A photochromic material is one that changes from transparent to a color when it is exposed to light, and reverts to transparency when the light is dimmed or blocked. An electrochromic material changes color when a small electric charge is passed through it. Both photochromic and electrochromic materials have potential applications in many types of devices.

As for how both materials could have applications appropriate for windows, Berger’s article describes a smart window that sounds like it’s both electrochromic and photochromics and has the added benefit of being able to power itself,

A new type of smart window proposed by researchers in The Netherlands makes use of a luminescent dye-doped liquid-crystal solution sandwiched in between electrically conductive plates as an energy-generating window.

The dye absorbs a variable amount of light depending on its orientation, and re-emits this light, of which a significant fraction is trapped by total internal reflection at the glass/air interface.

(For more details about this specific project, please read Berger’s full article.)

A few months ago I chanced across a local (Vancouver, Canada-based) start-up company, SWITCH Materials, that features technology for smart windows. From the company website (Technology page),

SWITCH’s advanced materials are based on novel organic molecules that react to both solar and electrical stimulation. Smart windows and lenses are the first commercial application under development at SWITCH. They darken when exposed to the sun and rapidly bleach on command when stimulated by electricity.

While competitive technologies rely on either photochromism or electrochromism, SWITCH’s hybrid technology offers the advantages of both, providing enhanced control and lower cost manufacturing.

• SWITCH’s technology also operates without requiring a continuous charge, and as a result has great potential for significant cost savings in many applications.

• The organic compounds in SWITCH’s materials are thermally stable and remain in their coloured state until electricity reverses the chemical transformation.

As far as I can tell, one of the big differences between this Canadian company’s approach and the Dutch research team’s is the Canadian’s use of organic compounds. Also, one of the key advantages (in addition to the ability to generate electricity) to the Dutch team’s approach is that users can control the window’s transmission of light.

I don’t know how close either the Canadian company (SWITCH) or the Dutch research team is to a commercial application but there is this excerpt from the Jan. 14, 2010 news release (on the Pangaea Ventures website),

SWITCH Materials Inc., an advanced materials company developing energy saving SMART window solutions, has raised $7.5M in Series B financing. The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC Venture Capital) led the investment, with participation from existing investors GrowthWorks, Pangaea Ventures and Ventures West. Proceeds will be used for continuing R&D and to complete product commercialization.

“I am excited that an up and coming Canadian clean tech company will be added to our portfolio,” said Geoff Catherwood, Director of Venture Capital at BDC. “The technology being developed at SWITCH carries tremendous potential to address the burgeoning demand for a new generation of window technology. Producing a SMART window solution that can meet the price point required for significant market penetration will enable SWITCH to gain a leadership position in a large untapped market.” In conjunction with the financing, Mr. Catherwood will join the company’s Board of Directors.

I notice the news release makes no mention of a timeline for possible commercial applications or of competitors for that matter. In addition to the Dutch research team (there’s a Dutch company [I blogged about them here {scroll down}] that is producing something remarkably similar [it too offers control for transmission of light] to the Dutch research team’s smart windows profiled by Berger), there’s competition from the Americans who, recently, through their federal Dept. of Energy invested $72M (a loan guarantee added to previous investments) in SAGE Electrochromics.

The market for windows that could conceivably eliminate or seriously minimize the use of air conditioning is huge. In this era of concern about energy use and climate change, air conditioning is a problem as it uses a tremendous amount of energy, has a significant carbon footprint, and most importantly for business, it is expensive. Think of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Delhi, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Tel Aviv, Nairobi,  Toronto, New York, Montréal, Chicago, Paris, London, Belgrade, Berlin, etc. during their respective hot seasons and the advantages of smart windows become quite apparent.

One last thing I’d like to mention about the Canadian company, it’s a Simon Fraser University (SFU), spinoff with Neil Branda, director of SFU’s nanotechnology centre, 4D Labs as their chief technical officer. Dr. Branda’s research work was last mentioned on this blog in a posting that featured, SFU scientists their phasers on stun as part of the title.