I’m in Bergen, Norway, at a conference, Nanomat 2007, run by the Norwegian Research Council. The opening pair of talks – from Wade Adams, of Rice University and Jürgen Altmann, from Bochum, presented an interesting contrast of nano-optimism and nano-pessimism. Here are my notes on the two talks, hopefully more or less reflecting what was said without too much editorial alteration.
The first talk was from Wade Adams, the director of Rice University’s Richard E. Smalley Institute, with the late Richard Smalley’s message “Nanotechnology and Energy: Be a scientist and save the world”. Adams gave the historical background to Smalley’s interest in energy, which began with a talk from a Texan oilman explaining how rapidly oil and gas were likely to run out. Thinking positively, if one has cheap, clean energy most of the problems of the world – lack of clean water, food supply, the environment, even poverty and war – are soluble. This was the motivation for Smalley’s focus on clean energy as the top priority for a technological solution. It’s interesting that climate change and greenhouse gases was not a primary motivation for him; on the other hand he was strongly influenced by Hubbert (see http://www.princeton.edu/hubbert) and his theory of peak oil. Of course, the peak oil theory is controversial (recent a article in Nature – That’s oil, folks, subscription needed – for an overview of the arguments), but whether oil production has already peaked, as the doomsters suggest, or the peak is postponed to 2030, it’s a problem we will face at sometime or other. On the pessimistic side, Adams cited another writer – Mat Simmons – who maintains that oil production in Saudi Arabia – usually considered the reserve of last resort – has already peaked.
Meanwhile on the demand side, we are looking at increasing pressure. Currently 2 billion people have no electricity, 2 billion people rely on biomass for heating and cooking, the world’s population is still increasing and large countries such as India and China are industrialising fast. One should also remember that oil has more valuable uses than simply to be burnt – it’s the vital feedstock for plastics and all kinds of other petrochemicals.
Summarising the figures, the world (in 2003) consumed energy at a rate of 14 terawatts, the majority in the form of oil. By 2050, we’ll need between 30 and 60 terawatts. This can only happen if there is a dramatic change – for example renewable energy stepping up to deliver serious (i.e. measured in terawatts) amounts of power. How can this happen?
The first place to look is probably efficiencies. In the United States, about 60% of energy is currently simply wasted, so simple measures such as using low energy light bulbs and having more fuel-efficient cars can take us a long way.
On the supply side, we need to be hard-headed about evaluating the claims of various technologies in the light of the quantities needed. Wind is probably good for a couple of terawatts at most, and capacity constraints limit the contribution nuclear can make. To get 10 terawatts of nuclear by 2050 we need roughly 10,000 new plants – that’s one built every two days for the next 40 years, which in view of the recent record of nuclear build seems implausible. The reactors would in any case need to be breeders to avoid the consequent uranium shortage. The current emphasis on the hydrogen economy is a red herring, as it is not a primary fuel.
The only remaining solution is solar power. 165,000 TW hits the earth in sunlight. The problem is that the sunlight doesn’t arrive in the right places. Smalley’s solution was a new energy grid system, in which energy is transmitted through wires rather than in tankers. To realise this you need better electrical conductors (either carbon nanotubes or superconductors), and electrical energy storage devices. Of course, Rice University is keen on the nanotube solution. The need is to synthesise large amounts of carbon nanotubes which are all of the same structure, the structure that has metallic properties rather than semiconducting ones. Rice had been awarded $16 million from NASA to develop the scale-up of their process for growing metallic nanotubes by seeded growth, but this grant was cancelled amidst the recent redirection of NASA’s priorities.
Ultimately, Adams was optimistic. In his view, technology will find a solution and it’s more important now to do the politics, get the infrastructure right, and above all to enthuse young people with a sense of mission to become scientists and save the world. His slides can be downloaded here (8.4 MB PDF file).
The second, much more pessimistic, talk was from Jürgen Altmann, a disarmament specialist from Ruhr-Universität Bochum. His title was “Nanotechnology and (International) Society: how to handle the new powerful technologies?” Altmann is a physicist by original training, and is the author of a book, Military nanotechnology: new technology and arms control.
Altmann outlined the ultimate goal of nanotechnology as the full control of the 3-d position of each atom – the role model is the living cell, but the goal goes much beyond this, going beyond systems optimised for aqueous environments to those that work in vacuum, high pressure, space etc., limited only by the laws of nature. Altmann alluded to the controversy surrounding Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology, but insisted that no peer-reviewed publication had succeeded in refuting it.
He mentioned the extrapolations of Moore’s law due to Kurzweil, with the prediction that we will have a computer with a human being’s processing power by 2035. He discussed new nanomaterials, such as ultra-strong carbon nanotubes making the space elevator conceivable, before turning to the Drexler vision of mechanosynthesis, leading to a universal molecular assembler, and discussing consequences like space colonies and brain downloading, before highlighting the contrasting utopian and dystopian visions of the outcome – one the one hand, infinitely long life, wealth without work and clean environment, on the other hand, the consumption of all organic life by proliferating nanorobots (grey goo).
He connected these visions to transhumanism – the idea that we could and should accelerate human evolution by design, and the perhaps better accepted notion of converging technologies – NanoBioInfoCogno – which has taken up somewhat different connotations either side of the Atlantic (Altmann was on the working group which produced the EU document on converging technologies). He foresaw the benefits arising on a 20 year timescale, notably direct broad-band interfaces between brain and machines.
What, then, of the risks? There is the much discussed issue of nanoparticle toxicity. How might nanotechnology affect developing countries – will the advertised benefits really arise? We have seen a mapping of nanotechnology benefits onto the Millennium Development Goals looked by the Meridian Institute. But this has been criticised, for example by N. Invernizzi, (Nanotechnology Law and Business Journal 2 101-11- (2005)). High productivity will mean less demand for labour, there might be a tendency to neglect non-technological solutions, there might be a lack of qualified personnel. He asked what will happen if India and China succeed with nano, will that simply increase internal rich-poor divisions within those countries? The overall conclusion is that socio-economic factors are just as important as technology.
With respect to military nanotechnology, there are many potential applications, including smaller and faster electronics and sensors, lighter and faster armour and armoured vehicles, miniature satellites, including offensive ones. Many robots will be developed, including nano-robots, including biotechnical hybrids – electrode controlled rats and insects. Medical nanobiotechnology will have military applications – capsules for controlled release of biological and chemical agents, mechanisms for targeting agents to specific organs, but also perhaps to specific gene patterns or proteins, allowing chemical or biological warfare to be targeted against specific populations.
Military R&D for nano is mostly done in the USA, where it accounts for 1/4 – 1/3 of federal funding. At the moment, the USA spends 4-10 times as much as the rest of the world, but perhaps we can shortly expect other countries with the necessary capacity, like China and Russia, to begin to catch up.
The problem of military nanotechnology from an arms control point of view is that limitation and verification is very difficult – much more difficult than the control of nuclear technology. Nano is cheap and widespread, much more like biotechnology, with many non-military uses. Small countries and non-state actors can use high technology. To control this will need very intrusive inspection and monitoring – anytime, anyplace. Is this compatible with military interest in secrecy and the fear of industrial espionage?
So, Altmann asks, Is the current international system up to this threat? Probably not, he concludes, so we have two alternatives: increasing military and terrorist threats and marked instability, or the organisation of global security in another way, involving some kind of democratic superstate, in which existing states voluntarily accept reduced sovereignty in return for greater security.