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Taking a look at the field of nanotechnology

The physicist Richard Feynman once said, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” Feyman’s speech in 1959 urged scientists to shift their view of the world to smaller scale, and is regarded by many as a seminal event in the birth of nanotechnology. From electronics to medicine, nanotechnology is believed to have widespread potential applications. However, this developing field of study works in a playing field where all the rules are not yet known, where making regulation and policy is just as important as the research itself.

Feynman described the world seen through a miniature lens as a place with an incredible amount of possibility that had yet to be explored. In the 1970s, the engineer K. Eric Drexler popularized the notion of molecular nanotechnology, envisioning the “molecular assembler” – a nanoscale machine able to recruit matter from the environment in order to make copies of itself or anything within physical possibility. Drexler’s machine would allow the production of just about anything that could be imagined. Though such a machine does not yet exist, Drexler’s dream is slowly being realized across a multitude of fields.

At the nanoscale, even a minute change can lead to a huge difference. These possibilities are being studied and applied in labs across various departments at McGill. The McGill Institute for Advanced Materials (MIAM) includes researchers across the fields of science and engineering, and in interviews with The Daily, some of MIAM’s members shared insights into their research and their views on the future of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology has been around for much longer in some fields than others. In microelectronics, transistors – devices in electronics used to control the movement of electrons – have been driven down in size for decades prior to the current nanotechnology hype. This trend of shrinking transistors has been a large driving force in the technological revolution. One of the areas of study David Plant and Andrew Kirk of McGill’s Engineering department are working on is silicon photonics, an emerging field in nanoelectronics. Silicon photonics involve enabling silica – the building blocks for all modern electronics – to use light rather than electricity. “Nanotechnology is an enabler of many things,” says Plant, “and one of the places it enables is the internet.” Silicon photonics hold the potential to address the growing global demand for the internet in future years.

More recently, the ideas of nanotechnology have seeped into many different scientific realms. In biology, the application involves examining and modelling systems that work at the nanoscale. One example is nanocrystalline cellulose, a material currently studied at McGill. These tiny needle-like structures come from forest products and exhibit extraordinary properties. Mark Andrews, a researcher in the chemistry department, is involved in this research. “They are beautifully iridescent, brightly colored, and create highly ordered phases of materials spontaneously in certain conditions,” described Andrews. He went on further to explain, “They are being widely studied in industries from aviation to catalysis … The little crystal has unusual properties – including enormous strength and the ability to be chemically modified.”

These are just a few examples of the many applications of nanotech. “[In nanotech], the development of equipment and research go hand in hand,” says Andrews. Because this field involves looking at materials too small to see with the naked eye, the advancement of more sensitive equipment, such as microscopes and atom traps (devices that can hold single atoms), is a critical element in determining the rate of progress.

One of the challenges when it comes to nanotechnology is agreeing on an exact definition. While purists argue that it refers solely to the ability of controlling matter on the atomic scale, other scientists include assemblies that have been made with nanoscale materials. Though the definition does not make a huge difference at the level of scientific discovery, it becomes important when considering the development of nanotechnology policy.

While examining nanotech applications for health and environment related issues, it is important to weigh the potential side effects of applying new nanomaterial against the potential benefits. “We need to be cautious of what the impact will be,” says Peter Grutter, a physicist in the MIAM group. “There is only one thing I’m 100 per cent sure of, [and that] is that we’ll never be 100 per cent sure.”

At the nanoscale, properties of materials often change. For example, though gold is non-reactive on a macro scale, it becomes highly catalytic ñ a driving force for chemical reactions – at around two nanometres. This makes it imperative to create policies surrounding issues such as workers’ safety. Andrews stresses the importance of considering the health and safety, social, and economic elements surrounding the emerging field of nanotechnology. “Our artificial division of scientific, social, and ethical also needs to simulate the notion of looking from the bottom up,” Andrews explains. Policy makers in nanotechnology need to be as detail-oriented as those studying and engineering the materials.

Quebec and the rest of Canada are very different when it comes to scientific policy. According to Grutter, in Quebec there have been many written reports by scientific advisory and ethics committees on the potential impact of nanotechnology and its economic, social, and logistical challenges. The first regulation for workers in nanotechnology was written in Quebec; however, on the federal level, no scientific policy for nanotechnology exists.

Nanotechnology holds great potential at both the local and global levels. Locally, nanotechnology opens possibilities across various types of industry – allowing people to create new businesses. Globally, nanotechnology may be able to address problems in energy and healthcare in ways that have never been possible before.

Historically, a new revolutionary force has entered the world every fifty or so years. From the initial rise of textiles, railroads, and automobiles during the industrial revolution, to the rise of computers in the information revolution, each new technology has followed a similar trajectory. They are usually slow to take off and have a period of rapid growth before innovation plateaus. Currently, the only real limitations for the possibilities of nanotechnology are time, patience, and imagination. As it is just now at the initial stages of growth, the future holds much potential for this emerging field of exciting research.