Promising the World, or Costing the Earth?

| 1st May 2003
Nanotechnology has the power to affect every aspect of life on the planet. Here, the Ecologist presents the many claims of its promoters and outlines some of the major developments taking place now or in the near future. In response, some of it’s leading critics analyse the risks that nanotechnology poses in their various fields of expertise.


‘The importance of nanotechnology to the future of mankind cannot be overstated. Nanotech’s promise is clean industries, cures for disease, nearly unlimited energy supplies, a continuance of Moore’s Law and perhaps the end of hunger.’

-Mark Modzelewski, Executive Director of Nanobusiness Alliance.


‘Nanotech accelerates a technofix trend that looks to technology as the solution to the world’s most pressing problems, overriding issues of safety, security and equity. Potential productivity gains through genetic engineering are touted as the answer to hunger, though distribution and access rather than production is the problem. ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) are being promoted as the means to bridge the information divide, when resources and opportunities to use that information are absent.

Now, nanotechnologies will similarly offer governments even broader opportunities to avoid enacting necessary social, political and economic change. Nanotech threatens even further to divert funds, knowledge and political will away from the research necessary to address society’s problems in a systemic manner and from policies and practices that will tackle the root causes of hunger, the misery of most human livelihoods and the degradation of the environment.’
-Patrick Mulvany, Senior Policy Adviser, Intermediate Technology Development Group.


In 2000, Kraft Foods, the $34 billion food and beverage giant launched the NanoteK consortium, focussing on:

• novel products tailored to each consumer’s taste buds. For example, latent nanoparticles inside a clear, tasteless drink could be activated with a domestic microwave to produce whatever taste the consumer desires;

• personal food products that recognise an individual’s nutritional or health profile (allergies or nutritional deficiencies);

• packaging to detect and alter a consumer’s vitamin deficiencies.

Meanwhile Rutgers University is developing:

• ‘nutraceutical’ foods that use proteins to deliver drugs to targeted areas of the body;

• food packaging that changes colour and alerts the consumer when the food inside starts to spoil.



• Nano-sensors will be sprinkled on crops or soil to monitor temperature, water, salinity, nitrogen and disease;

• Nanoparticles will be used as chemical delivery systems for pesticides and as alternatives to existing agricultural chemicals. Clemson University in South Carolina is developing bioactive nanoparticles that bind with bacteria in industrially farmed poultry meat, aiming to reduce their ability to infect humans.


What are the risks?

All of these developments ignore the systemic problems with the way we treat food and farming. No attempt is made to address consumption patterns or animal welfare issues – improved efficiency and profitability are the only aims. The parallels with GM foods should also trigger alarms. What, for example, will happen when materials never before found in nature enter the food supply and the environment?

‘The US already has fewer farmers than prisoners. With their farming knowledge replaced by sensors what farmers are left will be little more than prisoners, farming according to the dictats of computer models and agribusinness corporations.
-Jim Thomas, European Programme Co-ordinator, ETC Group

Nanotechnology will increase the corporate control over agriculture with molecular breeding combined with nanosensors to control inputs like irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides making the farmer irrelevant to farming. Synthesising molecular alternatives to natural products will displace millions from primary production and rob the Third World of economic options. It will accelerate the existing trends of patent monopolies over life -- making a handful of corporations ‘life-lords’. Most importantly, nanotechnlogies and the molecular vision of life will undermine more holistic systems for food and health.’
-Vandana Shiva, Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, India.


Faster drug delivery

Researchers at MIT have affixed gold nanoparticles to strands of DNA. When the gold-plated DNA is exposed to a magnetic field, the strands break apart. When the magnetic field is removed, the strands re-form. The researchers have effectively developed a switch that will allow them to turn genes on and off. The goal is to speed up drug development, allowing pharmaceutical researchers to simulate the effects of a certain drug that also turns genes on or off. The lab has recently licensed the technology to a biotech startup, engeneOS, which intends to ‘evolve detection and measurement in vitro into monitoring and manipulation at the molecular scale in cells and in vivo.’ In other words, to stop testing in test tubes and start working in living bodies.

Artificial Cell Creation

Robert Freitas is developing an artificial red blood cell able to deliver 236 times more oxygen to tissues than natural red blood cells. The artificial cell, called a ‘respirocyte’, measures one micron across and has a nanocomputer on board, which can be reprogrammed remotely. Freitas predicts his device will be used to treat anaemia and lung disorders, but also will enhance human performance in sport and warfare. Among the risks, Freitas lists overheating, explosion and ‘loss of physical integrity’.

Faster, more accurate diagnosis

A Stanford University chemist is developing a glucose sensor using a single carbon nanotube, to be implanted into diabetic patients.

More efficient drug delivery methods

• Researchers at Florida University have created a nanocapsule gel to deliver drugs into the eyes through soft contact lenses.

• Powderject has developed systems that deliver nanoparticle drugs through the skin at high velocity while SkyePharma is already bringing inhalable nanopharmaceuticals to the market.

• L’Oreal has pioneered similar techniques in cosmetics. Since 1995 its products have incorporated nanocapsules containing vitamin E which is delivered deep into the wearer’s skin

Improved imaging

Cambridge University researchers are designing nanoparticles that bind to cancer cells. When a laser shines through the affected organ it picks up the nanoparticles creating a clear image of the cancer.


The vast cost of undertaking nanotech research will necessitate most of the effort going into profitable medicines – ie medicines for the lifestyle conditions of the rich over the life threatening illnesses afflicting much of the world’s poor. As with food, nanotechnology seeks the answers to life’s problems in technofixes rather than addressing the root causes in society itself.

‘Ultrafine particles (UFPs) are particles less than 1/10,000th mm in size. During our evolution, there were few UFPs of any relevance to health in our environment, mainly harmless soluble salts windblown from the sea. Now we are subjected to large quantities of UFPs from various combustion sources, and in addition, the nanotechnology industry is starting bulk production of UFPs for a wide range of applications, from drug delivery to sunscreen creams.

When materials that are normally harmless are converted into ultrafine particles, they tend to become toxic. The smaller the particles, the more reactive and toxic they generally become. This is unsurprising, because that is exactly how catalysts are made, to enhance industrial chemical reactions.

UFPs can get past the lung’s defences into the spaces where gas exchange between the air and the blood takes place. The scavenger cells that mop up particles have difficulty in recognising UFPs as being ‘foreign’ and anyway they can be overwhelmed by too many particles.

There is evidence that UFPs can also gain entry to the body by ingestion and through the skin. In addition, there appears to be a natural ‘passageway’ for nanoparticles to get into and then subsequently around the body, through the ‘caveolar’ openings in the natural membranes which separate body compartments. These minute openings are thought to be involved in the transport of ‘macromolecules’ such as proteins, including, on occasion, viruses.

They also happen to be about the right size for transporting UFPs. The pharmaceutical industry is exploiting this effect, to improve drug delivery to target organs, particularly the brain, which is protected by the very restrictive ‘blood brain barrier’.

Chemists can apparently design UFPs that can hoodwink certain body membranes into allowing ‘piggybacking’ of novel chemicals on UFPs across these membranes. However, this means that when environmental UFPs (such as from traffic pollution) gain unintentional entry to the body, this same mechanism can deliver them to vital organs. The body is then ‘wide open’ to any toxic effects that they can exert.’

Professor Vyvyan Howard, department of human and cell biology, University of Liverpool



Nano Vision

Nanotechnologies have the potential to produce plentiful consumer goods with much lower throughput of materials and much less production of waste, thus reducing carbon dioxide build up and reducing global warming. They also have the potential to reduce waste, converting it to natural materials which do not threaten life.’
-Lester Milbrath, Research Programme in Science and society, State University of New York.


NanoSensors – Nanomix Inc is engineering nanotube-based sensors to detect gas leakages in chemical plants and refineries. They claim each sensor will cost 10 times less than conventional gas detectors and operate for a year on watch batteries.

Renewable Energy – In Japan photo-reactive nanocrystals are being developed for more efficient solar cell production. Researchers from the US Department of Energy have succeeded in embedding photovoltaic nanorods in plastic, creating moldable solar plastic cells. In time, developers hope to produce thin film ‘solar wallpaper’ or nanosolar paint that can be invisibly sprayed or applied to any surface transforming roads or building exteriors into vast energy generators. Researchers at Clemson University are embeding carbon nanotubes in plastics to produce 'Piezzoelectric' materials that generate electricity when flexed – such materials could be woven into sails to produce electricity as they flap in the wind. NEC is developing fuel cells based on carbon 'nanohorns' (like nanotubes) for incorporation into laptops and fuel cells from the start of 2004.

Rice University is developing methods that use the reactivity of nanoparticles to clean contaminants, especially biological contaminants from water. A number of small companies including Nanoscale already have products that promise to filter or destroy anthrax. Envirosystems sells a nanoemulsion called Ecotru – marketed as an environmentally friendly disinfectant.

Molecular recycling and biomimicry – By mimicking natural processes developers hope to produce synthetic materials that break down more easily in nature. Nano-visionaries such as Eric Drexler foresee a day when molecular nanobots will disassemble toxic waste and dispose of it safely or use its components to build new products.

Averting catastrophe – Technologist Douglas Mulhall argues that the real environmental threat in a nano-world will no longer come from human activity but from natural disasters such as earthquakes, asteroids and tsunamis. He argues that environmentalists should campaign now for new nanotechnologies to eradicate these natural events – for example nanobots to detect and dissolve asteroids or artificial ocean reefs to prevent tidal waves hitting America.


Given the similar claims made for technologies such as nuclear power, synthetic plastics and GMOs, environmentalists are understandably wary when promised 'nano-electricity too cheap to meter' or 'better living through nano-chemistry'. There are three main areas of concern.


At the nanoscale the properties of matter become different because of quantum effects, so they display new effects, perhaps becoming more chemically reactive. In part, these new properties are why companies are so interested and have or will soon use nanoparticles in sunscreens, cosmetics, coatings, explosives, batteries, antimicrobial bandages etc. But if they're different, why would we expect their environmental and toxic impacts to be the same as the 'safe' bulk product? Well you wouldn't. Is there any environmental and toxicological data on effects? Basically no. And there's no regulation that says you need to look. Just like with BSE, "no evidence of risk" is being taken to mean "evidence of no risk". We don't know for sure whether nanoparticles are dangerous or not. But we should find out before huge amounts of them are out in the environment.'
-Doug Parr, Chief Scientific Advisor, Greenpeace UK


Nanobiotech researchers are redesigning DNA, viruses, bacteria and even prions to grow nanowires, construct molecular mechanisms or develop medical implants and sensors but, as we know from escaped genes and superviruses, life, especially at the molecular level, has the ability to evolve in unpredictable ways affecting human and natural populations. Supposedly precise genetic engineering is usually accompanied by unpredictable secondary effects and short strands of synthetic DNA intended merely as scaffolding in nanomachinery could theoretically become incorporated into viruses and living organisms.

Grey Goo and Green Goo

The most persistent environmental fear expressed concerning nanotechnology was popularised by Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems. Technically it is known as 'Global ecophagy by omnivorous replicators' but is usually characterized as ‘the grey goo problem’. In this scenario out of control self-replicating nanobots could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce global ecosystems to dust or 'goo' in a matter of days. Like viruses, dangerous nanobots could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop. While many in the nanotech establishment dismiss molecular nanobots as science fiction many of the recent breakthroughs in nanobiotech point to the emergence of hybrid biomechanical nanomachines that will use biology rather than mechanics to self reproduce. In fact the larger problem may turn out to be 'green goo' rather than 'grey goo' as these half natural nanobiomachines slip out of human control.




In March 2002, the US Army created the five year $50 million Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The ISN is a huge undertaking, staffed by 150 researchers, including 35 MIT faculty members from eight different departments and several industrial partners to bring the nanotech research closer to a reality. Chemical giant DuPont brings years of experience in fibres and polymer materials. Arms manufacturer Raytheon will handle systems integration.

• One of the primary goals is to enhance the performance of the individual soldier. Developments include Nano-equipped warriors of the future with the ability to leap over 20 foot walls, fight with superhuman artificial limbs, and wear uniforms that make them invisible, invincible and provide automated first-aid on demand. Already they have developed ‘exomuscles’ as strong as human muscles capable of being flexed and stiffened on demand.

• Another immediate goal is reducing soldiers’ weight load from 145 to 45 pounds. The Institute is currently developing a molecular ‘chain mail’ no heavier than paper.


Every new war brings the same claims of more focussed weaponry, bringing less unintended death to civilians. But still the friendly fire and the collateral damge take their toll on the victims and the Earth. Nanotech will only serve to make the mighty mightier and ensure that it becomes ever harder for the rest of the world to challenge that power.

Furthermore, many of the technologies developed for use by the military will fast find their way into peace time uses, for example:

By facilitating the minaturisation of remote camera design, nanotechnology will make it possible to place undetectable video cameras, microphones and transmitters almost anywhere. The development of portable, microfluidic platforms allows for small samples (eg tissue) to be analysed quickly and inexpensively. Use of this technology by employers and insurance companies to discriminate represents a significant threat to personal freedom.’

Michael D Mehta, PhD, director of the Sociology of Biotechnology Program through the College of Biotechnology.



The US National Nanotechnology Initiative recently held seminars on ‘Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance’. A host of leading politicians, academics and military, industrial and technological leaders predicted that nanoscale technologies would one day usher in an era of ‘sightless who will see... lame who will walk... infertile couples who will be able to conceive children’.

• Dr Carlo Montemagno, a leading nanotechnology resesearcher at the University of California Los Angeles is designing molecular connections that will allow neurons in the brain to communicate with silicon wires.

• At the University of Lund in Sweden, nanotechnology researchers are designing bionic hands that can be directly activated by the brain.

• US Navy researchers at the University of Wisconsin have designed night vision devices that interface with nerve cells in the tongue, allowing Navy Seals to ‘see’ through the tongue in watery environments. Unlike every other part of the body, the tongue has no dead layers of skin, the saliva conducts electricity well, and only requires 3 per cent of the voltage of normal skin. The device transmits information to the tongue via 100 different microscopic metal points.

• Those on the wilder edges of the nanotech community, including ‘transhumanists’ such as Eric Drexler of The Foresight Institute, Ray Kurzweil of MIT or Ralph Merkle of Zyvex, argue that nanotechnology will usher in ‘radical life extension’, bringing the dead out of cryogenic stupor or improving what they see as our woefully inadequate bodies.

‘The National Nanotechnology Initiative approach seems to treat ‘disabilities’ as a medical/technological problem – a subnormal deviation to be eradicated and improved upon. It does not see disabled people's 'set of abilities' as a legitimate variation intrinsic to humankind. Nor does it value disabled people as valid human beings in their own right to be recognised and supported by society.

This approach narrows human diversity in general. As we create a technological rat race of escalating abilities what is 'normal' will shift towards a 'bionic norm' that all people will be expected to adhere to. Three recent USA incidents seem to support this conclusion. In 1998 the US Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent by ruling in two separate instances that a disabled person can't be seen as a disabled person with human rights protection under laws such as the American with Disability Act if a techno/medical fix is available. Furthermore, in 2002, a deaf mother who did not want to give her deaf child irreversible cochlear implants because she saw deafness as a culture and not as a defect had her child removed from her by child welfare.’

Gregor Wohlbring, Executive Director, International Centre for Bioethics, Culture & Disability

Even a safe and benignly governed nanotechnology, if developed in the ways its proponents hope for, would overwhelm the scale of human life. If growing and making really are replaced by pushing the buttons on the side of a universal assembler, then there will be no need for us (a fact acknowledged by those techno-utopians who predict a “fast-forwarding of evolution” to a “post-human” world.) On such a planet, the spiritual and ethical and moral ideas that have grown up in the course of human development would be drained of meaning too.’

Bill McKibben, author Enough – genetic engineering and the end of human nature

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2003


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