Nanotechnology - Friend or Foe?
An introduction and reflection
by James Lamont
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To reflect on the opportunities and dangers of nanotechnology.
Preparation and materials
- Ask a science teacher to prepare a visual comparing relative sizes that helps to emphasize the minute size of nanoparticles, showing their size compared to atoms, molecules, a human hair, skin cells and so on. Have the means to display it during the assembly.
- In February 2016, Canberra in Australia is hosting the International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.
What is 'nanotechnology'? It is the control and manipulation of tiny materials.
How tiny? We are talking about matter the size of molecules and atoms.
Display the visual comparing relative sizes of different very small items.
According to the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, nanotechnology is concerned with the science of things less than 100 nanometres in size. One nanometre is about three atoms long. In comparison, a single human hair is about 60,000 to 80,000 nanometres wide. By putting these tiny materials together, scientists are able to build very small things, such as computer chips and electronic components.
- This is a new technology and an extremely promising one. The USA, the European Union and Japan are spending a lot of money on research in this area because it may be very important in the future. Today, early nanotechnology is widespread. Around three to four new nanotechnology products become available every week. Many products use a small amount of nanotechnology to improve performance. For example, bowling balls can become more durable, trousers can last longer and computers can contain more memory thanks to nanotechnology improving the design of computer chips.
- As well as improving the consumer goods we buy, nanotechnology may help solve global problems. Using new materials created using nanotechnology, carbon emissions from cars are being reduced, which is good news as it is believed such emissions cause global warming. Also, doctors will have access to new ways to cure diseases.
- New technologies give us more power to control the world and make it serve us. Yet, with this power come risks and responsibilities. An important aspect of the science of nanotechnology is recognizing the dangers of this technology and seeking to lessen the risks. Some people are afraid of military nanobots – tiny, invisible electronic spies. Some even imagine an uncontrollable swarm of trillions of tiny robots destroying everything around them.
These concerns may sound like science fiction, but nanotechnology is already changing the world around us. Bacteria-fighting particles, designed in a lab to stop socks smelling, could escape into the water supply and destroy existing bacteria that are important for water treatment and natural ecosystems. Nanofibres - tiny materials used in construction - could be inhaled and may cause breathing difficulties.
- Throughout history, new technologies have changed the world around us and helped us live safer and easier lives. New technologies also always bring with them new risks and challenges. The power of nanotechnology may well help us live better lives, but we must also always be aware of the dangers that such technology could bring.
Time for reflection
Think about a piece of technology you own – it could be a phone, computer, TV, microwave oven or even a light bulb. Think about how it makes your life better, but also any problems or risks it brings with it.
Thank you for the many wonders of technology.
Thank you for scientists who work hard to develop new cures for diseases and new ways to enhance our lives.
Please help us to always remember that the world is a precious place.
Help us to not abuse our resources and always act with thought and care.
'And did those feet in ancient time' (Jerusalem) (Hymns Old and New (Kevin Mayhew), 37, 2008 edition)