I’m never thrilled with titles of this ilk, Will Nano Save the Planet? Refreshingly, this episode featured some work being done by Canadian scientists (two of them) although the average Canadian could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the only nanotechnology research taking place in Canada.
It’s a little puzzling that they chose this final episode for a description of the term nanoscale. David Suzuki, the host, mentioned the ridges of skin on your fingers and noted that a nanoparticle is 80,000 times smaller than the distance between the ridges. (If you want a really good description of scale, I recommend listening to Professor Ravi Silva’s audio interview with Alok Jha on the (UK) Guardian’s Oct. 14, 2011 Science Weekly podcast.)
In general, I found the descriptions of the science in this episode were not of the same standard as the previous two, which were very good.
The vignettes, as always, were problematic largely since they were internal monologues of some character who’s grappling with ethical issues and other social impacts of these technologies. Interestingly, men starred in the vignettes where the ‘big’ issues are covered: ethics of health care; longer life; access to energy sources; pollution from nanotechnology-enabled products; etc. The woman who starred in the vignettes from episode one (as I noted in my review) was concerned with cleanliness, tidiness, shopping, and privacy. I guess things don’t change that much in our future, especially in 2050 where nanotechnology protestors are putting up banners, spraypainting, and leafletting (almost as if it were 1968) to express their opposition (in episode three).
There was some interesting work being covered. They profiled Professor Ted Sargent, based at the University of Toronto, who’s doing some exciting work with solar cells (he wants to make them flexible and, even, paintable). His latest breakthrough is mentioned in my Sept. 20, 2011 posting.
Professor Vicki Colvin, Rice University in Texas, is working to purify water. The project is in Mexico and highlights the difficulties when water supplies are contaminated, in this case, with arsenic. (Here in the Pacific Northwest we tend to forget that access to fresh clean water is not easy in many parts of the world.) Colvin and her colleagues are working on a simple solution that can be implemented with some sand, gravel, a tube, and active nanoparticles. (Her work with the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative; a UK/US collaboration was mentioned in my Jan. 28, 2011 posting.)
The third project was focussed on soil remediation and a team from the University of Western Ontario headed by Professor Dennis O’Carroll. I have not come across O’Carroll’s work previously so this was a find for me. As you may or may not know, there are many sites with contaminated soil throughout North America and elsewhere. If successful, O’Carroll’s technique promises to remediate (rehabiltate) the soil without having to move massive amounts of soil and use big equipment.
This episode featured more discussion about the risks and uncertainties associated with nanotechnology and its use. Unfortunately, I did not recognize the names and (one of my major pet peeves with this series) they either didn’t write out the names on screen or they flashed them briefly which meant that unless I recognized the names it was difficult to find out more about the experts.
I did recognize the mesocosm project at Duke University, which was featured here in my August 15, 2011 posting. The researchers are trying to understand what impact silver nanoparticles have on life. They spray silver nanoparticles in various mesocosms (they look like raised plant beds) and then track what happens to the plant, the soil, and the water supply as the silver nanoparticles cycle through.
There’s work in the UK examining air and the nanoparticles released through the use of internal combustion engines (cars/trucks) as well as our newly engineered nanoparticles. I’m glad to see this material in the episode, perhaps it will finally motivate some public discussion in Canada.