Why I’m Suffering From Nanotechnology Fatigue

The field is important—but the hype is exhausting.

nanotech fatigue.

Photo illustration by Slate. Image by TopVectors/Thinkstock.

Writing about nanotechnology used to be fun. Now? Not so much. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, nano’d out. And casual conversations with my colleagues suggest I’m not alone: Many of us who’ve been working in the field for more years than we care to remember have become fatigued by a seemingly never-ending cycle of nano-enthusiasm, analysis, critique, despondency, and yet more enthusiasm.

For me, this weariness is partly rooted in a frustration that we’re caught up in a mythology around nanotechnology that is not only disconnected from reality but is regurgitated with Sisyphean regularity. And yet, despite all my fatigue and frustration, I still think we need to talk nano. Just not in the ways we’ve done so in the past.

To explain this, let me go back in time a little. I was first introduced to the nanoscale world in the 1980s as an undergraduate studying physics in the United Kingdom. My entrée wasn’t Eric Drexler’s 1986 work Engines of Creation—which introduced the idea of atom-by-atom manufacturing to many people, and which I didn’t come across until some years later. Instead, for me, it was the then-maturing field of materials science.

This field drew on research in physics and chemistry that extended back to the early 1900s and the development of modern atomic theory. It used emerging science to better understand and predict how the atomic-scale structure of materials affected their physical and chemical behavior. In my classes, I learned about how microscopic features in materials influenced their macroscopic properties. (For example, “microcracks” influence glass’s macro properties like its propensity to shatter, and atomic dislocations affect the hardness of metals.) I also learned how, by creating well-defined nanostructures, we could start to make practical use of some of the more unusual properties of atoms and electrons.

A few years later, in 1989, I was studying environmental nanoparticles as part of my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. I was working with colleagues who were engineering nanoparticles to make more effective catalysts. (That is, materials that can help chemical reactions go faster or more efficiently—like the catalysts in vehicle tailpipes.) At the time virtually no one was talking about “nanotechnology.” Yet a lot of people were engaged in what would now be considered nanoscale science and engineering.

Fast forward to the end of the 1990s. Despite nearly a century of research into matter down at the level of individual atoms and molecules, funding agencies suddenly “discovered” nanotechnology. And in doing so, they fundamentally changed the narrative around nanoscale science and engineering. Nanoscale science and engineering (and the various disciplines that contributed to it) were rebranded as “nanotechnology”: a new frontier of discovery, the “next industrial revolution,” an engine of economic growth and job creation, a technology that could do everything from eliminate fossil fuels to cure cancer.

From the perspective of researchers looking for the next grant, nanotechnology became, in the words of one colleague, “a 14-letter fast-track to funding.” Almost overnight, it seemed, chemists, physicists, and materials scientists—even researchers in the biological sciences—became “nanotechnologists.” At least in public. Even these days, I talk to scientists who will privately admit that, to them, nanotechnology is simply a convenient label for what they’ve been doing for years.

The problem was, we were being buoyed along by what is essentially a brand—an idea designed to sell a research agenda.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Investment in nanotechnology has led to amazing discoveries and the creation of transformative new products. (Case in point: Pretty much every aspect of the digital world we all now depend on relies on nano-engineered devices.) It’s also energized new approaches to science engagement and education. And it’s transformed how we do interdisciplinary research.

But “brand nanotechnology” has also created its own problems. There’s been a constant push to demonstrate its newness, uniqueness, and value; to justify substantial public and private investment in it; and to convince consumers and others of its importance.

This has spilled over into a remarkably persistent drive to ensure nanotechnology’s safety, which is something that I’ve been deeply involved in for many years now. This makes sense, at least on the surface, as some products of nanotechnology have the potential to cause serious harm if not developed and used responsibly. For instance, it appears that carbon nanotubes can cause lung disease if inhaled, or seemingly benign nanoparticles may end up poisoning ecosystems. Yet as soon as you try to regulate “brand nanotechnology,” or study how toxic “brand nanotechnology” is in mice, or predict the environmental impacts of “brand nanotechnology,” things get weird. You can’t treat a brand as a physical thing.

Because of this obsession with “brand nanotechnology” (which of course is just referred to as “nanotechnology”), we seem to be caught up in an endless cycle of nanohype and nanodiscovery, where the promise of nanotech is always just over the horizon, and where the same nanonarrative is repeated with such regularity that it becomes almost myth-like.

And this is where my nanofatigue really begins to set in. After more than a quarter of a century of working on nanoscale materials, my stamina for treating “brand nanotechnology” as if it was anything more than a brand is running low.

And yet …

Beneath the branding, there is important science and technology here that deserves greater awareness and attention. When you strip away the hype and mythology from nanotechnology, what you’re left with is a growing ability to understand and manipulate matter at the scale of atoms and molecules. This is nanoscale science, design, and engineering (as distinct from nanotechnology), and it’s already transforming the world around us.

The reason why is simple—the more we learn how the arrangement of atoms, molecules, as well as small clusters of them, influence the behavior of matter, the better we can design and engineer new products that extend our capabilities.

This is nothing to do with “brand nanotechnology,” and everything to do with learning how to redesign the world around us from individual atoms upward. Through nanoscale science, design, and engineering, we are redesigning the genetic code of organisms from plants and bacteria, to mosquitoes, and even humans. We’re developing new ways to harvest renewable energy. We’re opening the door to new approaches to disease treatment and prevention. And these examples just scratch the surface.

Pretty much any area of technology development around us is based to some degree on our mastery of the atoms, molecules and material structures that make up all substances (biological and nonbiological). Because of this, as soon as you drop the nanotechnology brand, and the way it constrains our imagination and thinking, the world becomes a much more interesting place.

It also becomes a much more dangerous one, because what we are in effect doing—and have never had the capacity to do before—is learning how to play with the building blocks that everything around us is constructed from. And if arranged in the wrong way, these “building blocks” can just as easily lead to new materials and products that are harmful, as to ones that are useful.

To be clear, these concerns about safety are not determined by size but by what the materials and products we create are capable of doing. Make a mistake in how new materials are used in products like airplanes, buildings, novel computer architectures, foods, innovative medical treatments, and so on, and “it wasn’t really nanotechnology” is hardly a good defense.

And this is where there’s a greater need than ever to talk “nano” —not in the sense of “brand-nanotechnology” but in how we ensure that our increased control over how we design and engineer materials, organisms, and products, leads to innovations that are responsible rather than unexpectedly harmful.

This is “talk” that everyone should at least have the opportunity to be a part of. And this is where nanofatigue is hardly a good excuse for not helping people better understand the world we’re building, so they can be a part of building it better.

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.