Small Misunderstandings

Six itty-bitty misconceptions about nanotechnology, debunked.

Treatment for cancer with magnetic nano-particles which can be transported in liquids into the body.
A cancer treatment with magnetic nanoparticles, which can be transported in liquids into the body.

H. Christoph/ullstein bild via Getty Images

When I told my friends and colleagues that I would be writing on nanotechnology for our September Futurography course, a few were bemused. “You mean like tiny robots?” one asked with a smirk. “I didn’t think that stuff was real.”

My friend was referring primarily to the speculative pop-science of K. Eric Drexler, most of all to his 1986 book Engines of Creation, which imagined a future of minuscule machines that would be able to rebuild reality from raw atomic matter. While those ideas were widely mocked by researchers—perhaps most notably by the Nobel Prize–winning chemist Richard Smalley—they’ve continued to influence the way many perceive nanotechnology, which mostly deals with the manipulation of supersmall matter.

Or so I thought. Calling up a handful of researchers—working in fields ranging from synthetic biology and molecular communication to nanofabrication and computer engineering—I was surprised to find that they mostly deal with more quotidian misconceptions. Simply put, the real trouble, as Michael Khbeis, director of the Washington Nanofabrication Facility, is that “people just don’t have a clue what nanotechnology is.”

A handful of factors contribute to that confusion, not least of which is that nanomaterials can be hard to define and their effects can be difficult to predict. To really grasp what’s at stake when we’re talking about nanotechnology, however, it’s still important to know what it’s not. With that in mind, here are six of the misconceptions that the researchers I spoke to identified. It may not cure your nanofatigue, but hopefully it will help clear the fog a little.

1. It’s Not Radically New

“Nanotechnology is enabling a new way, or a more focused way, of learning about what’s always been around us,” said William E. Bentley, chairman of engineering at the University of Maryland. As W. Patrick McCray points out, conversations about nanotechnology date back at least into the 1950s. And though new tools have given us better access to nanoscale materials, humans have been employing nanoparticles to surprising ends for centuries, as artist Kate Nichols notes.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that nanotechnology researchers such as Khbeis generally emphasize the connections between their current work at the nanoscale and whole generations of earlier efforts in various fields. Khbeis, for example, speaks of his work as a continuation of the efforts that underwrote Moore’s law, the 1965 observation that the transistors per square inch on silicon chips doubles at a regular rate.

“On our end, it’s really just an evolutionary march toward single atoms,” Khbeis told me. “We’re just trying to scale to manipulating smaller and smaller electrical features.” While he and others in his field may experiment with new systems of technologies, they can still trace a line of continuity to earlier, more macroscale, ways of manufacturing chips. Nanotechnology, in other words, generally doesn’t mark a radical break with older ways of doing things. Instead, it’s about the attempt to do things better by doing them at a smaller scale.

2. It’s Not a Unified Area of Inquiry

Nanotechnology encompasses a wide array of research areas and practical processes. Generally speaking, the term can refer to any work conducted at the nanoscale (though even determining where that scale begins and ends can be tricky). Accordingly, there’s no guarantee that any two researchers working in the area will even be exploring remotely similar issues.

Unfortunately, the term itself may actually contribute to disciplinary confusion. Lara Gamble, a professor at the University of Washington, pointed to one such example, telling me, “I find that people often confuse bioengineering, which is what I do, with genetic engineering.” Though different disciplines may draw on or otherwise utilize nanotechnological methods (you might, Gamble observed by way of example, employ nanotech in genetic engineering), they typically do so in varied ways and to diverse ends. In other words, nanotechnology is neither a research field in its own right nor a shared point of appeal for otherwise discrete fields.

3. It’s Not About Any One Tool

Regardless of what you’re researching, things tend to get much fuzzier when you’re working at the nanoscale. That means you might need more instruments to make sense of a very small object than you would if you were trying to work with a much larger one. This plays out even within specific subfields.

Understanding chemistry, orientation, and other properties of a nanoparticle presents a host of challenges, Gamble told me. “You’d see that in a movie, where they shoot their molecule with this spectrometer and suddenly they know everything about it, and that’s just not the way that things work,” she said. Even devices like the scanning tunneling microscope—which revolutionized our relationship to atomic matter—don’t stand alone.

4. It Doesn’t Make Things Simpler—It Complicates Them

“If I had to say that there’s a trend,” Khbeis told me when I asked about common confusions. “I think it’s that a lot of CEOs or startups tend to trivialize how complicated it can be to fabricate something at the nanoscale.” Though he thinks that other facilities and labs working in his field would share many of the same toolkits and technologies, they use them in vastly different ways.

Indeed, it’s their differing approaches to the process of nanofabrication that enable “the really revolutionary breakthroughs,” he said. The flip side of that emphasis on process, however, is that small changes to the way you do things can lead to vastly different results. Something as simple as throwing a sample on a hot plate for 60 seconds, he explained, can undermine everything else you’ve done, “leading to an immense amount of wasted time and energy.”

The impulse to oversimplify nanotechnology—especially when it comes from laypeople—may well be a residue of the old Drexlerian dreams, which proposed that nanorobots would mostly do the work themselves. But as Khbeis puts it, this idea of things building themselves is mostly a “pipe dream” at this point, and process is still king in nanofabrication.

5. It Isn’t Necessarily Dangerous

Few ideas have shaped anxieties about nanotechnology more than “gray goo,” a hypothetical apocalyptic scenario in which out-of-control nanobots would tear down everything around them and remake it in their image. In practice, nanotechnology still raises a host of important—if somewhat more quotidian—concerns, not least of which is that some nanomaterials may have carcinogenic or otherwise deleterious properties. Indeed, Bentley told me, the “fear that nanoparticles might be toxic” is one of the concerns he hears most often about his work.

While that danger is real, Bentley suggested to me that such anxieties may be out of proportion with actual circumstances. Nanomaterials, as he puts it, have literally been around us forever, even if our ability to interact with them has grown. As such, it would be silly to act like these materials are dangerous as a matter of course. It remains important, however, to interrogate their properties when we use them, a need that has—Bentley noted—helped drive research funding.

6. It’s Still a Useful Term (Probably)

Given how varied nanotechnological research is—and how freighted it can be with misconceptions—it’s sometimes tempting to dismiss the term nanotechnology outright. As Bentley puts it, the word once helped get people excited, but when it began to grow more pervasive, it grew increasingly “difficult to identify what’s relevant.”

Khbeis likewise hesitated when I asked him about the term, telling me, “For the common individual, it’s very intimidating. Even for myself, when you say nanotechnology, are you talking nanoparticles? Are you talking about proteins? Are you talking about studying pores on a cell?”

The sometimes-baffling range of nanotechnology may, however, be what continues to make it useful. Keren Bergman, an electrical engineering professor at Columbia University, suggests that its very complexity may be its strength. “I like the term nanotechnology because to me it means, this is a place where you have several disciplines that come together to create capabilities, and products, and applications that were really unimaginable before,” she told me.

This article is part of the nanotechnology installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.