Ferrial Adam
Ferrial Adam

Science for sustainability!

I confess that gadgets in sci-fi and ‘spy vs. spy’ movies have always intrigued me. You have to admit that some of these ‘inventions’ are quite novel and innovative, and play quite an important element to the success of the movie. It is difficult not to marvel at the idea of being beamed from one place to another, or flying around on a stick or having a defibrillator in your car [ok maybe not this one so much]. Anyway, the thrill of movies such as Star Trek, James Bond and Harry Potter (and hundreds of others) is the simple escape into a fantasy world for both young and old. And now some scientists believe that these ‘inventions’ could make these fantasies a reality!

In an article in the Mail and Guardian a couple of weeks ago, mention was made of a book titled: The physics of the impossible. The article quotes the author of the book — Professor Michio Kaku –- as saying that he believes that “invisibility cloaks and telepathy could be possible in this century”. The cloaks are made of a substance called ‘metamaterial ’ that “eliminates reflections and shadows and thus renders an object invisible”.

In the past decade, science and technology have taken leaps and bounds in almost every facet of our lives. This can especially be seen in nanotechnology – a field of science and technology that has been described as the “next industrial revolution”. Nanotechnology can be defined as “as the technique enabling the direct manipulation and reconstruction of the world at the atomic level or at a scale of 100 nanometres or less.” One nanometre is one billionth of a metre and just to give you an idea of how small it is – the average human hair is 25,000 nanometres in width and a red blood cell is 7,000 nm wide.

Many scientists believe that the solution to the world’s problems can be found in science and technology. I am not entirely convinced but having said that, the highly multi-disciplinary field of nanotechnology allows it to draw on fields such as applied physics, materials science, robotics, and engineering – and thus creating new and innovative products — at a level that is almost drawing on science fiction and thus makes you believe in the impossible.

And in case you think that nanotechnology has not touched your life yet, here are some materials that have been developed:

  • sunscreens (with zinc oxide nano-particles rub on clear and don’t leave a white sheen)
  • Self-cleaning glass (how cool is this?) –- uses nano-particles to make the glass photocatalytic and hydrophilic. Photocatalytic means that when UV radiation from light hits the glass, nano-particles become energised and begin to break down and loosen organic molecules on the glass. Hydrophilic means that when water makes contact with the glass, it spreads across evenly, which helps wash the glass clean.

  • Scratch resistant coatings
  • Wound dressings
  • Solar energy
  • Fuel catalysts

  • With the right arrangement of atoms, you can create a carbon nanotube that’s hundreds of times stronger than steel, but six times lighter. Engineers plan to make building material out of carbon nanotubes, particularly for cars and planes. Lighter vehicles would mean better fuel efficiency.
  • Production of potable water through the means of nano-filtration (this may still be in a research phase).
  • Future research is ‘toying’ with the idea of finding a nanotech medical device that could travel through the human body to seek out and destroy clusters of cancerous cells. And for those who really believe in sci–fi, there is also talk of using medical nanotech to make humans “smarter, stronger and give us other abilities ranging from rapid healing to night vision”.

    This sounds wonderful, in fact it sounds hopeful — but there are some major concerns that have been raised about nanotechnology. Some of these concerns are very similar to the ones raised on genetic modification (and because I am the environmentalist of doom, I thought I’d share these with you):

    At a social level -– nanotechnology could increase the technological divide and exacerbate the wealth gap between developed and developing nations. The military sector is a key driver of nanotechnology research and development and thus we may find even more powerful and destructive weapons, including biological weapons.

  • At an economic level –- The issue of patent rights raises the question of who will control nanotechnology. According to Friends of the Earth (Australia), “if ownership of molecules is allowed, the nanotechnology techniques for the precise manipulation of atoms open up a whole new terrain for private ownership. As with genetic engineering where genes have become controlled by patents, things that were once considered universally owned could be controlled by a few.”
  • And of course at an environmental level – According to a report by the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology, materials at a nanoscale exhibit very different properties, for example “opaque substances become transparent (copper), inert materials become catalysts (platinum), stable materials turn combustible (aluminium), solids turn into liquids at room temperature (gold)”. The concern is that changing these materials means that we do not know what the impact of these new materials may have on the environment. In addition, Greenpeace highlights the fact that “little work has been done to ascertain the possible effects of nano-materials on living systems, or the possibility that nano-particles could slip past the human immune system.”

    Am I being alarmist? Am I saying that we should stop research in nanotechnology? No, I am not! It must be recognised that science and technology most definitely have a role to play in finding solutions to social and environmental problems. This does not mean that we should be careless in our methods, but rather we should show some precaution. We have not demonstrated any caution in the past and have to now deal with a damaged world. It may be a good time for change. (Now where have I heard this before?)

    In every aspect of our lives we are encouraged to be critical but when we critique science and technology we are labelled as Luddites or as ill-informed. J P Holdren suggests that there should be better dialogue between science and society and that “advancing science must be done in the context of a desire to improve the human condition” and not just for the sake of science. And in trying to improve on “the human condition,” we can commit to using science for sustainability, accepting criticism and thus move forward with caution.