Last week, I joined in a webinar entitled “Small is Beautiful: Everyday Applications and Advances in Nanochemistry,” that was hosted by the American Chemical Society in its Joy of Science series.
I was drawn to the webinar by its scheduled speakers: Andrew Maynard, Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, and Paul Weiss, Director of California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. But since I was pressed for time and somewhat weary of PowerPoint slides that discuss the Lycurgus Cup. I decided to cut out early and listen to the archived version found at the link at the top of this post.
Despite the webinar's being hosted by the ACS, it seemed to be very much directed at the layman rather than your typical physical chemist. But that too is somewhat misleading; Weiss very subtly raised important distinctions between terms, such as patterning, control, and—most important—function, that might be lost on someone first being introduced to the subject.
Nearly three-quarters of the hour-long webinar is devoted to Q&A, but in Weiss’ final slide, he had written: Most nanomaterials are not precisely defined. We should not treat them as chemicals.
Of course, if we can’t consider graphene to be graphite we are handing ourselves a lot of toxicology work sorting out how it and other nanomaterials interact with biological systems. As Weiss estimates (arguably) that there are currently 100 000 new nanomaterials, it would take us 10 000 years testing with current methods to determine their risk. A nonsensical task, needless to say.
Weiss hints at a more pragmatic and hierarchical approach, in which a grading system is applied to nanomaterials so those that pose the biggest threat and have the least redeeming value are targeted and those with expected low risk and high benefit are fast-tracked (so to speak).
This proposal sort of scans like the Royal Society’s nanotechnology report from eight years ago.But aside from the whole environmental, health, and safety discussion, Weiss had some interesting perspectives on the history of nanotechnology’s development.
When Maynard suggested that we are now beginning to see that the macro world that some scientists initially were trying to impose on the nanoscale world—could this be a referral to mechanosynthesis?—were off the mark, Weiss suggested that the field of nanotechnology is actually a throwback.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, they were thinking about atoms and on the single-molecule scale because that was what they were wrapping their hands around with quantum mechanics. We got away from that with the use of ensemble measurements, but as of 30 years ago, when the STM was invented, we’re back again,” explained Weiss.
As I said, I am not really sure who this was all intended for, but it’s all interesting enough that anyone can glean some worthy bits from it.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.