Harnessing Nanotechnology to Improve Global Equity

Nanotechnology

PETER A. SINGER

FABIO SALAMANCA-BUENTELLO

ABDALLAH S. DAAR

Harnessing Nanotechnology to Improve Global Equity

The less industrialized countries are eager to play an early role in developing this technology; the global community should help them.

Developing countries usually find themselves on the sidelines watching the excitement of technological innovation. The wealthy industrialized nations typically dominate the development, production, and use of new technologies. But many developing countries are poised to rewrite the script in nanotechnology. They see the potential for nanotechnology to meet several needs of particular value to the developing world and seek a leading role for themselves in the development, use, and marketing of these technologies. As the next major technology wave, nanotechnology will be revolutionary in a social and economic as well as a scientific and technological sense.

Developing countries are already aware that nanotechnology can be applied to many of their pressing problems, and they realize that the industrialized countries will not place these applications at the top of their to-do list. The only way to be certain that their needs are addressed is for less industrialized nations themselves to take the lead in developing those applications. In fact, many of these countries have already begun to do so. The wealthy nations should see this activity as a potential catalyst for the type of innovative research and economic development sorely needed in these countries. Strategic help from the developed world could have a powerful impact on the success of this effort. Planning this assistance should begin with an understanding of developing-country technology needs and knowledge of the impressive R&D efforts that are already under way.

To provide strategic focus to nanotechnology efforts, we recently carried out a study using a modified version of the Delphi method and worked with a panel of 63 international experts, 60 percent of whom were from developing countries, to identify and rank the 10 applications of nanotechnology most likely to benefit the less industrialized nations in the next 10 years. The panelists were asked to consider impact, burden, appropriateness, feasibility, knowledge gaps, and indirect benefits of each application proposed. Our results, shown in Table 1, show a high degree of consensus with regard to the top four applications: All of the panelists cited at least one of the top four applications in their personal top-four rankings, with the majority citing at least three.

To further assess the impact of nanotechnology on sustainable development, we asked ourselves how well these nanotechnology opportunities matched up with the eight United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals, which aim to promote human development and encourage social and economic sustainability. We found that nanotechnology can make a significant contribution to five of the eight goals: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; ensuring environmental sustainability; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; and combating AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. A detailed look at how nanotechnology could be beneficial in the three most commonly mentioned areas is illustrative.

Energy storage, production, and conversion. The growing world population needs cheap noncontaminating sources of energy. Nanotechnology has the potential to provide cleaner, more affordable, more efficient, and more reliable ways to harness renewable resources. The rational use of nanotechnology can help developing countries to move toward energy self-sufficiency, while simultaneously reducing dependence on nonrenewable, contaminating energy sources such as fossil fuels. Because there is plenty of sunlight in most developing countries, solar energy is an obvious source to consider. Solar cells convert light into electric energy, but current materials and technology for these cells are expensive and inefficient in making this conversion. Nanostructured materials such as quantum dots and carbon nanotubes are being used for a new generation of more efficient and inexpensive solar cells. Efficient solar-derived energy could be used to power the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen, a potential source of clean energy. Nanomaterials also have the potential to increase by several orders of magnitude the efficiency of the electrolytic reactions.

One of the limiting factors to the harnessing of hydrogen is the need for adequate storage and transportation systems. Because hydrogen is the smallest element, it can escape from tanks and pipes more easily than can conventional fuels. Very strong materials are needed to keep hydrogen at very low temperature and high pressure. Novel nanomaterials can do the job. Carbon nanotubes have the capacity to store up to 70 percent of hydrogen by weight, an amount 20 times larger than that in currently used compounds. Additionally, carbon nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight, so theoretically, a 100-pound container made of nanotubes could store at least as much hydrogen as could a 600-pound steel container, and its walls would be 100 times as strong.

Agricultural productivity enhancement. Nanotechnology can help develop a range of inexpensive applications to increase soil fertility and crop production and thus to help eliminate malnutrition, a contributor to more than half the deaths of children under five in developing countries. We currently use natural and synthetic zeolites, which have a porous structure, in domestic and commercial water purification, softening, and other applications. Using nanotechnology, it is possible to design zeolite nanoparticles with pores of different sizes. These can be used for more efficient, slow, and thorough release of fertilizers; or they can be used for more efficient livestock feeding and delivery of drugs. Similarly, nanocapsules can release their contents, such as herbicides, slowly and in a controlled manner, increasing the efficacy of the substances delivered.

Water treatment and remediation. One-sixth of the world’s population lacks access to safe water supplies; one-third of the population of rural areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has no clean water; and 2 million children die each year from water-related diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, and schistosomiasis. Nanotechnology can provide inexpensive, portable, and easily cleaned systems that purify, detoxify, and desalinate water more efficiently than do conventional bacterial and viral filters. Nanofilter systems consist of “intelligent” membranes that can be designed to filter out bacteria, viruses, and the great majority of water contaminants. Nanoporous zeolites, attapulgite clays (which can bind large numbers of bacteria and toxins), and nanoporous polymers (which can bind 100,000 times more organic contaminants than can activated carbon) can all be used for water purification.

Nanomagnets, also known as “magnetic nanoparticles” and “magnetic nanospheres,” when coated with different compounds that have a selective affinity for diverse contaminating substances, can be used to remove pollutants from water. For example, nanomagnets coated with chitosan, a readily available substance derived from the exoskeleton of crabs and shrimps that is currently used in cosmetics and medications, can be used to remove oil and other organic pollutants from aqueous environments. Brazilian researchers have developed superparamagnetic nanoparticles that, coated with polymers, can be spread over a wide area in dustlike form; these modified nanomagnets would readily bind to the pollutant and could then be recovered with a magnetic pump. Because of the size of the nanoparticles and their high affinity for the contaminating agents, almost 100 percent of the pollutant would be removed. Finally, the magnetic nanoparticles and the polluting agents would be separated, allowing for the reuse of the magnetic nanoparticles and for the recycling of the pollutants. Also, magnetite nanoparticles combined with citric acid, which binds metallic ions with high affinity, can be used to remove heavy metals from soil and water.

Developing-country activities

Understanding how selected developing countries are harnessing nanotechnology can provide lessons for other countries and for each other. These lessons can be used to provide heads of state and science and technology ministers in less industrialized countries with specific guidance and good practices for implementing innovation policies that direct the strengths of the public and private sectors toward the development and use of nanotechnology to address local sustainable development needs. The actions of developing countries themselves will ultimately determine whether nanotechnology will be successfully harnessed in the developing world.

Developed-country governments should provide incentives for their companies to direct a portion of their R&D toward the development of nanotechnology in less industrialized nations.

We found little extant useful information on nanotechnology research in developing countries, so we conducted our own survey. This preliminary study used information we could collect on the Internet, from e-mail exchanges with experts, and from other publicly available documents. We were able to categorize countries based on the degree of government support for nanotechnology, on the presence or absence of a formal government funding program, on the level of industry involvement, and on the amount of research being done in academic institutions and research groups. Our results revealed a surprising amount of nanotechnology R&D activity (Table 2). Our plan now is to conduct individual case studies of developing countries to obtain a greater depth of understanding. Below is some detailed information we have acquired in the preliminary study.

China. China has a very strong and solid Nanoscience and Nanotechnology National Plan, a National Steering Committee for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, and a National Nanoscience Coordination Committee. Eleven institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are involved in a major nanotechnology research projects funded partly by the Knowledge Innovation Program. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology actively supports several nanoscience and nanotechnology initiatives. The Nanometer Technology Center in Beijing is part of China’s plan to establish a national nanotechnology infrastructure and research center; it involves recruiting scientists, protecting intellectual property rights, and building international cooperation in nanotechnology. China’s first nanometer technology industrial base is located in the Tianjin economic and development area. Haier, one of the country’s largest home appliance producers, has incorporated a series of nanotechnology-derived materials and features into refrigerators, televisions, and computers. Industry and academic researchers have worked together to produce nanocoatings for textiles that render silk, woollen, and cotton clothing water- and oilproof, prevent clothing from shrinking, and protect silk from discoloration. Nanotech Port of Shenzhen is the largest manufacturer of single-walled and multi-walled carbon nanotubes in Asia. Shenzheng Chengying High-Tech produces nanostructured composite anti-ultraviolet powder, nanostructured composite photocatalyst powder, and high-purity nanostructured titanium dioxide. The last two nanomaterials are being used to catalyze the destruction of contaminants using sunlight.