Towards a Green Nanotechnology

The advent of nanotechnology, the branch of engineering that seeks to build objects molecule by molecule – indeed, atom by atom – has evoked futuristic images of self-replicating “nanobots” that perform surgery, or that convert the planet into a mass of “grey goo” as they consume everything in sight.

These two scenarios follow a familiar story line: technological progress, such as the development of nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, information technologies, and synthetic organic chemistry, first promises salvation, but then threatens doom as the consequences, often environmental, become apparent. Even disinfecting water – the single most important technological advance ever in prolonging human life – turns out to produce carcinogenic byproducts. The cycle of fundamental discovery, technological development, revelation of undesirable consequences, and public aversion appears unbreakable.

Will nanotechnology be different? Along with the early euphoria and hype that typically surround the rollout of new technologies, nanotechnology has been the subject of projections concerning its possible environmental risks well before its wide-scale commercialization. Raising such questions when nanotechnology is still in its infancy may result in better, safer products and less long-term liability for industry.

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