Emerging Risk Categories: Technological, Environmental, Societal, Economic
Industries Impacted: Government, Financial Services, Technology, Consumer Products & Services, Agriculture, Healthcare & Life Sciences, Industrial Products & Services
Nanotechnology involves the ability to see, control and manufacture materials and devices on the scale of individual atoms and molecules, and even molecular subunits (supramolecular level). Since everything on the planet consists of atoms, the application of nanotechnology is far-reaching. As scientists and engineers find ways to manipulate materials at the nanoscale to take advantage of enhanced properties, such as higher strength or lighter weight, many possible applications suggest themselves across multiple industries.
Nanoscience has been evolving since 1959, when physicist Richard Feynman introduced the concept of manipulating atoms on an infinitesimal scale of 10-9 meters (aka nanoscale). Since then, scientists in all fields — chemistry, biology, physics, material science, engineering, etc. — have been designing structures and systems to perform these manipulations. Configurations on a larger scale are constricted to certain properties of atoms, such as weight, strength, reactivity and response to light; however, at the nanoscale, these structural properties can be altered to increase a material’s usefulness, advancing societal needs. These extremely small structures can be used for anything, from increasing the strength of sporting equipment to delivering drugs to diseased cells in a person’s body.
Over the past several decades, nanotechnology has become increasingly relevant. The nanotechnology market is estimated to reach US$12.83 billion by 2021, demonstrating the promising nature of nanostructures. While the U.S. is currently the largest market for nanotechnology, the Asia-Pacific region, Brazil and Canada are all poised for considerable growth in the coming years due to favorable microeconomic conditions and investments.
Use of Nanomaterials by Industry
Source: Nanotechnology Products Database, StatNano 2016: product.statnano.com/
Key Considerations and Implications
As with any rapidly evolving field, new applications for nanotechnology are appearing constantly, along with considerations regarding the future of the technology. Among them:
- Regulation — Due to the variety of nanotech applications, supervision of nanotech research can be very complex and difficult to apply. Care must be taken not to strangle a burgeoning field with regulation, while providing a safe environment for beneficial research across many different fields.
- Transparency — Nanotechnology may be used in controversial applications, such as surveillance instruments, miniature guns and explosives, or weapons with the ability to attack physical structures or biological organisms at the molecular level. The technology is not visible to the naked eye, raising concerns of the ability to easily monitor the use of these new applications and provide an appropriate quality control framework. On the sensational end of the spectrum, some have expressed concern that self-replicating nanobots can wreak havoc on Earth if they are not properly controlled.
- Privacy and consent — In healthcare, applications of nanotechnology may represent forms of invasive medicine, raising issues such as appropriate disclosures, patient consent and privacy. Such issues need to be considered early on, before widespread application of the technology in the medical field.
- The environment — The energy industry could experience huge advantages from applications of nanotechnology that can produce fossil fuels more efficiently, as well as spur the production of a number of “green” fuels. In addition, nanotech applications in controlling water pollution could greatly alter environmental risk assessments, enabling approvals of oil extraction and other controversial projects. This, in turn, could shift the weight of environmental concerns from production methods and water pollution to other risks, such as carbon emissions.
Spotlight: Industry Applications of Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is already being used by consumers in everyday products, such as stain-resistant clothing, stronger, thinner and lighter bottles and packaging, and stronger tennis balls and rackets. Below are examples of other applications across industries: