Skip to main content
Giant benefits of nanotech

Giant benefits of nanotech

Nanotechnology or Nano, as it is affectionately called among the researchers circle, is quite a new concept on the scientific arena. Though still too infant, the subject already has both opponents and proponents. Researchers in the Nano world hope that there will be a paradigm change from the field extending to the extent of ending death itself. This “madness” has attracted the attention of the world’s affluent individuals and organizations and they are already pouring their wealth on the scientific exploration that can lead to the desired end. Monsanto, an American multinational investor in agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology, is among the proponents of the research endeavor. On the other hand, environmentalists stand against Nano because of the perceived and potential risks that the technology poses to the environment as well as the entire humanity. But, Hailemichael T. Demissie (PhD), a legal researcher in the field and co-editor of the book ‘Harnessing Nanotechnology for Sustainable Development in Africa’, sees a silver lining in this and believes that the two sides can be brought to agreement. The Reporter’s Brook Abdu sat down with him to explore this new field and its applicability. Excerpts:

The Reporter: There is no agreeable definition of nanotechnology even among scientists researching in the field. Can we begin by depicting a clear picture as to what nanotechnology is in a manner that appeals to an average reader?

Hailemichael T. Demissie (PhD): It is right that there is no agreement on the definition of nanotechnology; and in fact some say there is no need to define it. But, the commonly used definitions refer to scale – the Nano scale which is any material between 1-100 nanometers in dimension. This is just an arbitrary limitation of the scale. The other criterion that is commonly used is the properties of materials at this scale; since materials at this scale reveal new properties. The joint presence of these two characteristics makes Nano-materials. These are used in defining nanotechnology. The problem is some materials above the 100 nanometer dimension also reveal new properties which are not observed at bulk levels. However, the new properties are probably most important than the scale and it is these properties that attract the interests of the researchers, the investors as well as governments.

So, you have silver at the bulk level which is not inert and not active but at the Nano level it turns to be active and antimicrobial. This can be used in medicine and in ancient Greece it was used to treat wine. At the moment, some are proposing to use it to make clean water. Another example is gold which is yellowish at macro level and at Nano level, it changes color to white or blue based on the way its atoms are arranged. Apart from this, the strength of materials at Nano scale is very important. Materials at the Nano scale turn to be extremely strong. The carbon or graphite in petroleum jelly is soft but, at Nano scale, when the molecules are rearranged like a string, they will become more than a thousand times stronger than steel. This characteristic of this material is being researched with a lot of investment so that it can be used for one of the fancy applications like a rope that can carry space shuttles to the space like an elevator.

There are so many other features for each and every element at this stage and that is what scientists are exploring at the moment to come up with not only stronger but also smarter materials that change behavior as needed. The technology helps shape the materials to get the desired characteristics. The materials can be made super conductible to be used in electricity lines etc. The potential the technology hands us is immense and unlimited.

Though nanotechnology is an infant technology, the debate around it is ripe and there are opposing views regarding nanotechnology. Many have strong stance that claims the effects of implementing the technology may lead to the extinction of the human race. The others say it will transform the human life on earth. How can these two be reconciled?

When we talk of the risks of nanotechnology, we are not talking of the risks of a technology. There may be some applications of Nano technology which can be hazardous and which can pose danger. But, to the opposite of this, there are also others that can be extremely beneficial to humanity. So, it depends on what applications we are talking about. The most important thing about this technology is that you shape the material the way you want it. The scientist that is referred to as the father of Nano technology and Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, said this is the capability that humanity gets to put atoms where we want them to be and when we want them.

It is about mastering atoms and it is mastery over nature. So, if human beings choose to use it for ill purposes, it is possible that it will be dangerous as it powerful. But, if we work on it so that we can look what benefits humanity gets out of it, we can benefit much from the technology. With any technology, material and instrument that humanity has ever made, there is always problem of the double edges sword. It is about the use of the technologies that determines the benefits and the risks.

Nano promises a range of ground breaking applications from ending poverty to ending death. But there are questions of ethical practice as the technology can be exploited by those in the field to get inappropriate benefits. Do you believe this is manageable and how can people trust the practitioners in the field with this thought in mind?

The global research community and governments have tried to address this issue. Most of the time, ethics, the law and regulations lag behind technologies and it is the technology that hits the ground first and then follows the ethics. What is being worked on at the moment is to make the ethics go hand in hand with the research. The proposal now is that there should be an ethicist (ethics philosopher) and the regulator in the lab the researcher works in. should there arise ethical issues out of the research, they can be identified at the possible early stage of the development. So, ethics is being integrated into the research process.  In the US for example, five percent of the total research budget is allocated for ethical, legal and social implications of the research. We also have the experience of biotechnology. With biotechnology, the ethical issues were left behind and the technology research has suffered a lot from lack of the timely ethical research.

There are some organizations trying to steer the developments in the nanotech to their advantages. Don’t you think that such organizations, or individuals for that matter, diverge the technological explorations towards their interests and how can it be alienated from the influence of such interest groups?

This issue is related to the control of the technology. The big players at the moment are these big global firms like Monsanto and they happen to be the big players in the biotechnology research as well. Some credit must go to these companies as they had the courage to indulge themselves to a research that nobody has explored. They had the courage to invest in these unexplored areas. They deserve credit for this. And, as companies, they work to get profit. The problem is that, although the technologies provide immense benefits, the market systems cannot handle these benefits because the technologies should be more than profit making for the benefits are really enormous.

Science and technology tends to be like information and we have seen with ICT technology for example. In the ICT, we have seen that the technology has broken the market system and many things are being availed for free. Although there are hidden costs, companies are trying to make money from advertisements and other means but not by selling the product itself. So, likewise, we expect nanotechnology and other emerging and converging technologies to be extremely beneficial and to break out of the market system to make the profit making motive redundant. So, the companies working on these technologies are expected to have a greater social goal than profit making. And it has become difficult to make profit these days because science and technology tends to be free and in the hands of everybody at the moment.

So, they are struggling with razor blade profit but they still want to make profit and they still want to control it. But, it is the nature of emerging technologies that they will not have full control. So, if they want to continue on profitmaking, they must develop new business models. Otherwise they cannot make the money they seek to make. And with reverse engineering and with extreme collaboration among scientists across the globe who want their knowledge to be free, the control of technology and science itself, is breaking away from few companies. We expect new business models, new distribution of social benefits of the technologies. But, the control of the technology should be addressed as an issue and we see that the big companies are losing control of the technologies which are instantly being distributed and known across the globe at once.

In the book you co-edited, it is mentioned that escaping of Nano-bots from labs are among some of the major risks of the technology. What kind of catastrophic events are we looking at should this happen? Are there any preparations to deal with this?

First, we shouldn’t be thinking of a risk free world; I don’t even think we should be imagining a risk free world. What humanity can do is reduce risks. There is no such thing as zero risk. Every aspect of life has risks but human beings have developed so many mechanisms to reduce risk and distribute risk so that no part of society will be unduly affected by a system of risk. That is why we have insurance. The talk should rather be about reducing and distributing risk. With nanotechnology, it is not just a technology but some applications of the technology that might be problem of extreme risk, which scientists refer to as existential risk.

For instance, there is a possibility of a self-propagating Nano-bot and that scared people after appearing in Hollywood movies as it was the first time they had heard of nanotechnology and its association with negative messages. The classification of risk as potential itself is wrong because it is not there to happen as there is no such risk as potential. But, there is possibility or probability of risk. The protocols for conducting research and the ethical responsibilities of the researchers and government regulations, however, weak and untimely, and risk regulation are helpful as there could be risks at any time. What we are proposing for example is a concept called vigilance in the sense that even if we think that the possibility of risk is near zero, we still have to be careful, vigilant to look the possibilities as sources of risks.

So, vigilance should be adopted as a guiding principle in the regulation and management of nanotechnology. But, I don’t think that the risk that we have with nanotechnology is any greater than the risk we have from driving cars on the streets. So, besides that, nanotechnology is about control of matter; it is about control of risk as well. I hope nanotechnology will contribute more to risk management than it contributes to risk possibility.

What kind of legal frameworks should be put in place for technologies like Nano in order to both benefit from the field as well as suppress possible risks?

The problem with law is that its developments severely lag behind. Lawmakers will pass laws on things that they have observed and on things that are actual mostly and not on things that are speculative or fictional. So, they need to have the experience of the technology itself to pass law on it. The major method of control of risks is rather at the ethical level. The law has to be ready to regulate the technology but that is unlikely to be successful without the ethical ground work. Hence, it is the ethics of the researchers and the scientists that matters. Hence, ethics is more primary and more fundamental than legal protection in this regard.

What real-life applications do we have for nanotechnology? What can nanotechnology do for preservations of historical sites like Lalibela which is under a threat of being damaged?

We had this experience from a US company that proposed to do maintenance works on the Lalibela rock hewn churches using nanotechnology. The technology had been implemented in other countries like Iran and other Middle Eastern countries that have similar monuments like ours. The talk was about coating the stones with nanomaterial which cannot be seen, as it is a Nano scale material, so that it does not affect the appearance of the monuments. It was said to give them strength that can preserve them for a couple of centuries without affecting their appearance, texture and structure. Some of these technologies have been tested in other places and it is not just one technology; there are so many types of technologies for that matter.

One of these is Nano paint; this paint is used in building ships to protect the hull from rust. There are also some Nano paints that are used in blocks to make them hydrophobic (water proof). We can use one of these technologies to protect the heritages especially those at the risk of collapsing. The problem with this technology is that it has not been tested enough. We could not take the risk with our precious materials and that is the right concern. But, that should not put us off and we have to research and test it on other materials and utilize the technologies after observing the results. This is an advanced maintenance technology despite the shades that were meant to protect the monuments but disfigured the appearance and limited the view tourists should have.

Nanotechnology requires huge amount of investment and you are proposing that the developing world should jump into the bandwagon of nanotechnology research. Is that complementary with the development needs of developing countries?

It is a choice that has to be made carefully. We have scarce resources and we might say we cannot spend it on fancy projects like nanotechnology research. The problem is that, if we are not into nanotechnology, then we will be undercut with other countries who have invested on nanotechnology investments. A good example of this is diamond. Some countries like Botswana are totally dependent on diamond export and diamond became precious and expensive a few decades back. Before that, it was like any other stone; nobody considered it as a valuable item.

There is a likelihood that it may change especially considering that it is now possible to make a diamond in the laboratory purer than the natural one in different variety of color and shapes. This can be done in just a few weeks which nature has taken thousands of years. Although some might say that the ones extracted are organic and the lab made is artificial, the lab made one is purer with no impurities than the naturally formed diamond. There will come a time when the lab made diamond will be preferred in the market than the mined diamonds.

If this lab made diamond makes it into the market, what will be the fate of those diamond exporting countries? The same holds true for rubber (tire) and textiles which the developing world depend for their economic progress but they are waiting to be replaced with Nano materials. Wither they will be replaced or their demands will decrease. A rubber can be reinforced with Nano materials and be made not to wear out. That means there will be no market for the upcoming products of rubbers. If these countries do not think what to do when the Nano materials hit the market, they will be taken by surprise and their economic mainstay will be jeopardized. It will be expensive for countries like Ethiopia to invest in Nanotechnology; so the best way is to collaborate with others. A group of countries can set up laboratories and use them together. There can also be partnerships with researchers in other parts of the world. They can also engage the critical mass that can engage in these areas.  The labs in South Africa, for example, because of government’s pan African belief, are open to any researcher in Africa. They call them the iThemba LABS. This is the modality they should be following.

Do you believe there was a PR mistake committed while introducing GMOs which resulted in its mostly negative acceptance in the public until now? What is in stake for nano? What PR strategies do you have to avoid such fate for Nanotechnology?

It is a fact, that there was a PR fiasco with biotechnology, especially with (Genetically Modified Organizations) GMO. And the officials of companies like Monsanto have admitted that they have made a mistake. It is not only PR, but also the interests of some countries like the US and European countries have severely been affected by the GM technology. European farmers did not want the GM seeds to come to their turf and they wanted to protect their interest. So, they painted the whole GMO endeavor black by labeling it as Frankenfood. And, the unfortunate situation Africa was in is very telling and there is a lesson to be taken from this African experience with GMOs.

The EU states that they wanted to fight their GMO wars on the African turf. The US was forcing GMO food into Africa through GMO maize food aid and the EU and the European countries were threatening African countries that they will not have trade relations with Europe if they receive these GM food aids. So, the African countries were in big trouble and most of them chose their trade relations with Europe than eat GM food and they prevented the arrival of GM food aid from the US. But, with some reflection, African researchers have now understood that this was wrong and Africa should have had its stance and should not have fallen under the arms twisting of influence of the EU of the US. In fact, the suggestion is that Africa should have its own biotechnology. So, there was this problem with these big parts of the global trade system. But, what we saw in the past few years is the increased use of GMO and many countries are adopting the technology and a great deal of land is being farmed by using GMO seeds. I haven’t heard of someone dead eating GMO food and it is just a speculative risk.

Fortunately, for nanotechnology, this path GMO has taken has not been the case. Despite the fact that the same companies that invested in GMOs are also investing in nanotechnology and despite the fact that critics of GMOs are voicing their criticism on nanotechnology too, in the same manner they used to voice on biotechnology. Nanotechnology has resisted this bad publicity. So, at the moment, we do not see any negative association with nanotechnology as it was common with GMO.

Is it the extent of the associations or are you saying there are no negative associations at all?

If you happen to hear about nanotech, it is not like when you hear about GMO. When you hear about GMO for the first time, it is the negative that you hear. But, when you hear about nanotech, it is about sophistication and it is about the next level of technology.

What about the environmental concerns?

Nanotechnology has so many applications that could help the environment. In fact, we will even be able cure the damages of the environment brought by previous technologies. Nano is inherently green; it is environmental friendly. First of all, it does not use bulk materials and there is no need to transport bulk materials hence, it helps to drastically reduce environmental pollution. We need just a few molecules, a few atoms when dealing with nanotechnology and we get the same effects or even more effects we used to get from bulk materials. So, this reduction in the use and consumption of materials will be an advantage to the environment. One of the arguments with biotechnology was the perceived effects it will have on biodiversity. When it comes to nanotechnology, it helps preserve as well as bring back the lost biodiversity to the planet. It might look very extreme but it has the possibility of bringing back extinct animals and extinct plants. This is a work in progress. But, who wants the dinosaurs back anyways?

Law and technology stand on the opposite direction as the former works to maintain the status quo and the later has disruptive nature. How did you get attracted to this specific aspect of technological exploration while being a seasoned lawyer yourself?

Law and technology seem to go their own parting ways. Law is provided to maintain the status quo while technology happens to disrupt this status quo. So, when we have a piece of legislation, we expect it to last for a possibly longer time; the presumption is that it will work forever. The law is there to last and the technology to disrupt. Hence, the two need reconciliation and this has yet to be made; there is no theory at the moment that can reconcile technology and law. For example, what the law does is punish criminals in an assumption of a deterrent effect this would have. With technology, what we have is total prevention of crime. Car theft in western countries has almost become impossible as the technologies are becoming dependent on the information the owners provides. The use of technology to help law and administrational justice has not been explored properly. This is a fresh area for researchers.

Is this the disruptive nature of technology that attracted you to researching nanotechnology?

After my undergraduate study, I worked as a judge for 13 years. What I found out in those years was too restrictive for me as you have to work strictly by the book and there was no room for innovation. Our legal system has little room for legal interpretation and we only have to follow the written law. The only area I thought I could contribute was in the field of legal reform and the introduction of new laws that need to be brought into the legal system. But, with all this, the work I was doing was too restrictive and I thought it would inhibit my desire to explore new areas. After 13 years, I went to a law school in the United Kingdom and did my masters on law in development, and technology came up during this study. Nanotechnology was one of the technologies I studied at my post graduates level and it was when I noticed its immense benefits to humanity.

The striking thing was a demonstration by one of our professors who brought a Nano towel into the class and cleaned the window glass with no need for water. It was sold out as a smart towel as there was a negative connotation for new technologies. I thought the benefits of this technology are very promising and I wanted to explore it further and I did it for my PhD on the regulation of nanotechnology. At the time, I was the only one in the UK to do work on law and nanotechnology. My focus was not on the regulation of the technology but on the regulation of the benefits of the technology which in one part was the problem with biotechnology.

The benefits of biotechnology were ripped away by a few companies. So, to avoid this fate on nanotechnology, we have to regulate the benefits and the users have to be beneficial of the benefits. When we do so, like the mobile phone whose benefits go to the user, it will succeed. The mobile technology was denounced by so many research saying it may cause cancer and it is dangerous but no one heeded these advises because the benefits outweighed whatever speculative risks we have.

What kind of researches is being carried out in Ethiopia in the field of nanotech? Where is the center for this research and who are the personalities involved?

The thing is some researchers might not call their researches as nanotechnology – it could be material science. It could be engineering at the Nano scale but, they may not name it so. I have seen one researcher working on Nano gold in Debre Tabor University working on Nano gold for medical applications. The researchers, even though they don’t label their researches as nanotechnology, it can still be a Nano scale level research; so, it could be a nanotechnology research.

That is one problem in identifying who is who in nanotechnology research in Ethiopia. But, at the institutional level, various departments in material science, especially, they are conducting researches which are bordering nanotechnology. For one, this is because of the subject itself – it is not just an area of research but everything at the Nano scale that is said to be a nanotechnology research. At the University of Gondar, we have managed to establish a nanotechnology research center a couple of years back, and it is organizing its labs.

At the Ministry of Science and Technology, especially at the Ethiopian Biotechnology institute, they have emerging technology centers and one of them is nanotechnology. We also have nanotechnology researchers who work on energy trying to make solar energy devices with Nano scale features. One of them is Professor Teketel Yohannes, the vice president of the Addis Ababa Science and Technology University, who has been working on solar energy applying Nano scale materials. Nanotechnology is an infrastructure technology like the computer which can be used to do anything people want to do. Likewise, nanotechnology is used to do research in any area. Nano microscopes are more powerful and have more functions so that they can be used by any scientist in any discipline. As an infrastructure technology, nanotechnology has to be given due attention.