How Reporting on a Nanomaterial Phenomenon Leads to Confusion about Nanotechnology's Capabilities

Accurate but misleading mainstream news reporting of nanotechnology is one of the key sources of public misperceptions on nanotechnology and its capabilities


As children many of us played the game that is known by various names but we called it “Telephone” in which a child whispers a message to another child, and the message travels throughout the class until you finally see how the telephone message changes.

I thought of this game when I saw that Twitter was buzzing yesterday with news that “MIT researchers discover a new energy source: nanotechnology”. If you ever wondered why nanotechnology has been saddled with unrealistic expectations in alternative energy applications, the evolution of this story is instructive for discerning one of the causes.

After clicking on the article I was led to an article on CNN tech news that offered up some more details on the story. There is nothing inaccurate about the story, but it is somewhat misleading. It seems to gloss over the fact that the energy is created by a chemical reaction that is then amplified by the carbon nanotubes to create an energy wave. The only indication we get in the article that there is a chemical reaction behind this is this: “After coating these tiny wires with a layer of fuel…”

I do not want to diminish the importance of actually creating this previously theoretical calculation of  “a self-propagating reactive wave can be driven along its [a carbon nanotube’s] length”. The research led by Michael Strano and his researchers at MIT, which was reported last week in Nature’s Materials Journal, addresses what I believe to an application area ripe for nanotechnology’s capabilities: improving batteries for laptops and personal electronics.

But couldn’t the headlines have been more along the lines of: material phenomenon that amplifies power from chemical reactions could impact powering of personal electronic devices. Instead we get: nanotechnology is a new energy source.

If you think I might be a little overboard on caution when describing these discoveries in the news, take a look at the comments on the CNN story. I really feel sorry for a fair number of the people who really ended up confused about what this is all about.

The Semiconductors Newsletter

Monthly newsletter about how new materials, designs, and processes drive the chip industry.

About the Nanoclast blog

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.