The DC-based research and consulting firm Social Technologies recently released a series of 12 briefs that shed light on the top areas for technology innovation through 2025.
The brief on "nanomaterials," by futurist Peter von Stackelberg, is the fourth trend in the series.
"In the next 10 to 20 years, we'll see major breakthroughs in nanomaterials and related processes used to produce many of our consumer and industrial products," von Stackelberg forecasts. Here's why.
Technology overview Small is the key word that describes the world of nanotechnology. The concept centers on miniaturization, and involves the creation of particles, fibers, films, coatings, and other materials that are significantly smaller than the typical bacterium—between one and 100 nanometers in size.
Because these particles are so tiny, nano-objects can access previously impenetrable areas. That
means they can make consumer products lighter, stronger, and more efficient—creating a significant
competitive advantage for the companies incorporating them into their goods. In an era when consumers are demanding products that are more effective, protective, and assistive, nanomaterials
provide the perfect fit.
Industries and consumers are also demanding more efficient use of resources and fewer waste streams.
Again, nanomaterials fit the bill. Additionally, rising energy costs and the insecurity of petroleum
supplies are driving research into nanomaterials that can boost production from alternative sources, or cut demand via greater energy efficiency.
As nanotech emerges as a major technological force over the coming decades, it will face a variety of obstacles. These include:
- Mastering nanoscale behavior. To date, the potential interactions of nanoscale matter are not
understood, von Stackelberg explains. "As research progresses, we may find that nanomaterials do
not act as expected, leading to unanticipated and potentially harmful consequences. Once
understanding improves about how matter behaves at the nanoscale, researchers will be able to
develop increasingly sophisticated applications of nanotech while avoiding human side effects."
- Public fears. The perception of the benefits vs. hazards of nanotech will have a significant impact on consumer acceptance of the technology. "A survey conducted in 2006 showed that although
42% of those polled had no awareness of nanotech, 20% had heard a little about it and 11% were
quite familiar with it," von Stackelberg says—noting that the majority of those in the know believed
that the risks of nanotech outweigh the benefits (35%). Only 15% said they believe the benefits
outweigh the risks, and 7% said the benefits and risks are about equal.
- Nanotech risks. "Obviously, a rational assessment of the true risks of nanotechnology are needed
to ensure that wildcards like ‘grey goo' don't dominate the discussions of risk while other, more
realistic risks are ignored," he points out. The potential for severe risk have been identified by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and include:
- Health and environmental risks. A growing body of scientific evidence reports that
nanomaterials have the potential to pollute air, soil, and water and to damage human
health. Some of the most interesting properties of nanomaterials—such as the ability of
nanoparticles to penetrate human cells—also present health risks if these particles escape
into the environment, where they can be absorbed into people's bodies. "Our understanding of the potential health and environmental implications of nanotech are extremely limited," adds von Stackelberg.
- Proliferation of "nanolitter." As more sophisticated nanomaterials become widely used,
nano-byproducts will need to be dealt with. For instance, it isn't currently known whether
nanoparticles used to treat cancer can remain in a patient's body or be excreted. "The
reality is that nanomaterials which are useful and benign in one setting can actually be
harmful in another," von Stackelberg explains.
- Criminal or terrorist use. Small, powerful weapons made from nanomaterials would be
difficult for society to defend against.
Although the underlying concepts of nanotechnology were thought up in 1959, only during the 1990s
were the first tentative steps taken toward identifying and developing nanomaterials. "Between the end of the first decade of the 21st century and 2025, a number of gamechangers will need to occur if
nanotech is to advance significantly," von Stackelberg says. These gamechangers include:
- A shift from "passive" to "active" nanotech. In the coming decades, nanotech will likely make the
transition from simple nanomachines—particles, crystals, rods, tubes, and sheets of atoms—to
more complex ones that contain valves, switches, pumps, and motors.
- Nanoscale tools. To work at the nanoscale, new tools will be needed to allow researchers and
technicians to see, measure, and manipulate individual atoms and molecules. "One promising
approach uses dynamic light scattering, a technique that measures how much nanoparticles jiggle
when hit with laser light," von Stackelberg shares. "Many scientists agree that this method has the
potential to do rapid, accurate measurement, and is expected to be operational by 2010."
- Nanofabrication. Currently, manufacturing processes for nanomaterials are extremely expensive,
produce only small amounts of material, and generate a significant amount of impurities and
waste, von Stackelberg says. "But consider this: Assembly of nanodevices today is at the same
stage as the automobile industry was before Henry Ford developed the assembly line."
To determine the relevance of these findings and forecasts for major business sectors, set up an
interview with Peter von Stackelberg by sending an email to Hope Gibbs, leader of corporate
communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Peter von Stackelberg ) Futurist
Peter von Stackelberg, the leader of Social Technologies' Futures Interactive program, brings more than a decade of experience as a futurist, strategic thinker, and writer. He also serves as an adjunct instructor in strategic management of technology and innovation at the State University of New York- Alfred, and as an advisor to the computer animation program at Alfred State. Peter has previously worked as a journalist, business analyst, university webmaster, e-commerce project manager, published poet, and computer artist. He is former editor-in-chief of Shaping Tomorrow and the founder of Applied Futures and FuturesWatch.org. He received a BA in journalism from Ryerson Polytechnical University in Toronto, Canada, and an MS in studies of the future from the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and has taken graduate courses in creative writing, computer art, and art history in pursuit of an MA in Humanities. Areas of expertise: Biotechnology, energy (green, renewable, oil), nanotechnology, future of technology, scenario planning.
Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world’s leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making.