Nanotechnology, water and development

What impact will nanotechnology make on the developing world? Some point to the possibility that nanotechnology might help solve pressing problems, such as the availability of clean water and more abundant renewable energy through cheap, nano-enabled solar cells. Others concede that these developments might be possible in principle, but that the political and economic barriers to development are more pressing than the technical ones.

An open meeting, to be held in London on November 7, will consider the issue. It’s organised by the thinktank Demos, and will involve NGOs, scientists and government representatives. Confirmed speakers include two scientists, Mark Welland, head of the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre, and me, as well as David Grimshaw, from the international development charity Practical Action, which was founded by E.F. Schumacher, the author of the famous book “Small is beautiful”.

In the meantime, a couple of interesting publications on the topic have appeared. The Demos project Nanodialogues had a section describing the results of a public engagement exercise carried out in Zimbabwe which explored the gulf between the reality of the water problems people face there and the more glib assurances that technical solutions will be easy. A much more detailed report, Nanotechnology, water and development, has been commissioned by the Meridian Institute, and written by Thembela Hillie and Mbhuti Hlope from South Africa, and Mohan Munasinghe and Yvani Deraniyagala from Sri Lanka. This explores a pair of case studies, and actually is quite positive in tone, concluding that “Developing countries are – on their own initiative – pursuing these technologies for both economic and humanitarian reasons.As the South African case study illustrates, developing countries are using existing nanotechnology products and are initiating nanotechnology projects to remove pollutants from water; the use of these technologies is not limited to developed countries.

7 thoughts on “Nanotechnology, water and development”

  1. Groan, not another meeting? I have lost count of the number of these events I have attended where everyone (often the same bunch of people) will agree that, yes it is a terrible problem and one that should be and can be solved, and then decide that the best way forward is to hold another meeting.

    Now come on, there are plenty of potential solutions out there waiting for people to get off their backsides and try to implement them. For the cost of a couple of these meetings we could be saving lives, rather than watching this endless hand wringing.

  2. Tim, I know that you feel strongly about this issue and that you’ve done a lot of work and spent a lot of time on it over the last few years, so I can understand your frustration. But maybe the fact that the meetings so far haven’t got anywhere suggests that they haven’t been reaching the people who would be in a position to make things happen. I completely agree that the solutions are there; the week before last I was speaking to an old friend, a scientist whose company has an excellent product for water purification, backed up by a great deal of R&D and a lot of IP. The product, he told me, is currently on hold. Bluntly, this is because the managers couldn’t work out a business model for a product whose potential customers don’t have any money. That’s what needs to be unblocked, and the constituency that Demos can reach may well include the people who can do this.

  3. Hello Richard, Hi Tim – I agree that it is often the same bunch of people hashing over the same topics over and over again and at the end of the day they pat themselves on the back about the ‘progress’ which was made.
    I was first introduced to Richard through the EPSRC Sandpit and the Blog Software Control of Matter – – and since that time our progress in the field has been an incredible journey.
    As well, I am reminded of a comment made by Kofi Annan at a meeting about the recovery effort after the 2004 Tsunami in South East Asia. He said, ‘It is the small and the nimble who are making the difference on the ground.’ This was in response to the news that groups like Surfriders, who I was acting in technical support, had done a great deal more on an ad hoc basis the the ‘well organized’ NGO’s.
    There could be a declared ‘Year of No Meetings’, or a concession to the standing Camp One policy of ‘There is only a meeting when the ToDo List exceeds the surface area of the Whiteboard’. This is very effective because it requires that people use their own initiative to solve a problem with the vast array of resources we have available and only resort to the ToDo list when they are stuck.

    Richard – To your comment ‘The product, he told me, is currently on hold. Bluntly, this is because the managers couldn’t work out a business model for a product whose potential customers don’t have any money.’ – Allow me to relate a incident which happened during the Surfriders project. We held a meeting of all the principal designers and suppliers with myself acting as coordinator. On the last of the three days of meetings, the sponsor asked in and asked how far we were from finishing. I told him we were 3 Hours out and counting and he needed to ‘Do the suits’. He took the manufacturers reps into another room and about 15 minutes later came back and said that one of the suppliers could not meet our supply schedule. I asked him to return the ‘suits’ to the room and I drew a map on the whiteboard. I explained to the supplier that if he took three extrusion dies from Germany and distribute them to each of three of the twenty-four available production lines in North America, and ran the lines for fifteen days straight, he could fill our order. He admitted that he had not talked to his shop foremen on the issue, which I had done, relying only on conventional practice with his supply chain.

    The ‘Moral’ to this, it there is one, this is an emerging field and require emerging thinking. I would suggest to your friend and his managers that they consider the benefit which will ultimately accrue to the end users, because once that is demonstrated, how it gets funded, I suggest, will be a moot point.

  4. Richard,

    There are two business models that work , either the method espoused in “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” by C.K. Prahalad, something that has proved harder to put into practice than to enthuse about, or government/NGO/private individual backed initiatives.

    Ultimately, any progress will come as a result of philanthropic rather than ‘for profit’ initiatives, as many of the technologies I have seen do work but have drawbacks in terms of energy requirements, consumables or cost, and hence need to be supported/subsidised.

  5. Tim,

    You seem awfully confident that you know what the problem is. A huge number of people in NGOs work with communities every day to find out more about the issue of getting water to people. They are there because the developing world is littered with technologies that have failed to live up to their promises. They don’t want the same mistakes repeated. Money may be one problem, but don’t pretend for one second that this is simply a matter of plucking technologies from a lab and transferring them from one place to another.

    We did a meeting with Practical Action, one of the aforementioned NGOs, in Harare. It took us two days to learn about the issue before we even begun discussing technological solutions. And even then, nano-filters were pretty low down on a pretty long list of possibilities. Of course there is a big financial challenge, but there is also ones of technological sustainability and research capacity.

    So I would say that we do need to keep talking about this, keep trying things, keep experimenting and keep researching. The worst possible thing we could do is assume we have an answer (by assuming we’ve asked the right question). We need to make sure that the right people are involved in the conversation, that we’re open-minded and that we’re serious about the need for system-level change.

    Why don’t you come along to the workshop and help us take the next step?

  6. Jack,

    I wouldn’t presume to understand every aspect of the problem, although having looked at this in recently in Africa, India, Saudi Arabia and Israel there are some, but not many common issues.

    However, organizing a trip to take notes followed by a meeting every couple of years is hardly going to make a difference is it, especially as the solutions range from desalination through the removal of fecal contamination to heavy metals? You need to be understanding the problem on a global basis and looking for the paths that would yield the solution that would benefit the greatest number of people rather than flying delegations out to Africa to see poverty for yourself. Surely Practical Action could have presented their views in London, along with a number of other groups who have people on the ground in other parts of the world. This would have saved a few tons of carbon, a few thousand pounds which could have gone towards the solutions, a couple of years and maybe even saved a few lives by now.

    You can debate possible solutions endlessly, as our friends in the molecular manufacturing community have been doing for years, but what is needed is some well funded goal oriented science, not yet another meeting.

  7. One hurdle to delivering goods to the developing world is high shipping costs. That’s why it often makes sense to makes things locally: low-emissions stoves using pyrholysis, made from scrap yard and garbage dump components. Or wind-turbine alternators made from discarded car brake-drums. These solutions can hardly be considered scaleable.

    That’s why I’ll again trumpet roll-to-roll solar cells, that are in my mind light enough to mail to paying NGOs or microfinance banks. And I’ll trumpet the required CNT or otherwise process improvements that must happen when Gallium. Indium and other metals stockpiles run out. Some new polymer battery technologies probably fit the same mould.
    I wonder if there might be some way to encourage oil to merge with chemical and/or materials science players, as a novel funding avenue?

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