Good things come in small packages,
and that just might be the case with nanotechnology. Then
again, it could all turn into a horror show.
In Michael Crichton’s novel Prey, an experiment in the secluded Nevada
desert goes terribly awry when micro-robots escape from the
laboratory. These “nanoparticles” are intelligent,
self-sustaining, self-reproducing and learn from experience. To
make matters worse, they have been programmed to prey on human
life, and efforts to kill them have failed.
Sci-fi? Well, yes, but not as far-fetched as you may think.
The relatively new field of nanotechnology is booming along
with its promise of curing cancer, producing stain-resistant
clothes, eliminating pollution and growing new body parts. It
is so new that the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters
awarded the first prize for outstanding achievement in
nanoscience in May.
With all its promise for revolutionizing our world in the
next few decades, the insurance industry is looking at the
inherent risks that may come along with this brave new world.
Lloyd’s has included it as one of 25 scary new risks on
the horizon. The scare list was published by the British
Ecological Society’s Journal of
Applied Ecology following a conference of 35 scientists,
environmentalists and policymakers.
The list of potential threats to earth’s
ecosystem—including mankind—resulted from an
exercise called “horizon scanning.” The idea is to
identify the risks before they emerge. “It isn’t
always possible to predict the consequences of new scientific
methods, but you can usually identify the possible
risks,” Professor Bill Sutherland of the University of
Trevor Maynard, Lloyd’s manager of emerging risks,
says the importance of the “list” is that it
includes “threats with obvious implications for insurers,
such as an increase in extreme weather events.”
But the list also produced other threats with less obvious
implications, Maynard says. For example, there is the
introduction by companies of invasive plant species to meet
demands for biofuels and whether any liability issues might
arise as a consequence. To say nothing
of those run amok micro-robots out to destroy us.
Just what is nanotechnology and how big is the industry?
When you think about nanotech, think small and then think
smaller. “Nano” comes from the Greek word for
“dwarf.” One nanometer is one billionth of a meter.
A human hair is less than 100,000 nanometers thick.
Atoms are the basic building blocks of all matter: cars,
flowers, animals, buildings, stars and us. The arrangement of
these atoms determines what is built. Scientists combine atoms
to create new materials such as medicines, electronics and
sunscreens. In nanotechnology, scientists manipulate atoms one
at a time.
The potential for nanotechnology translates into big
business. Between 1997 and 2005, government investments in
nanotech R&D around the world soared from $432 million to
about $4.1 billion. Investment by the private sector now
exceeds government spending. By some estimates, nanotech will
contribute nearly $1 trillion to the global economy by 2015 and
employ two million workers.
We already use products based on nanotechnology, but in the
very near future, scientists say, nanotech will invade every
aspect of our lives.
Most nanotechnology embedded in products, such as phones,
poses little risk to humans. However, some studies show that
nanoparticles used in clothing or cosmetics may pose a risk if
they are absorbed into the skin, inhaled or digested.
Every new material has the potential to be toxic. A good
example is asbestos, which has two forms. One is a harmless
mineral and the other a nano-tube of atoms, which can cause
lung cancer and other diseases.