"It is true that the lab, at some point, will be the new manufacturing floor."
–Christine Peterson, founder and vice president,
public policy for the Foresight Nanotech Institute
How will nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing alter the way in which we currently develop products? Will the lab be the new manufacturing floor?
Phoenix: Molecular manufacturing is expected to use fully automated encapsulated manufacturing tools. They would have to be automated, because to achieve the productivity of nanosystems, they cannot be controlled individually by direct human intervention. Once you automate a device, then you won’t have professionals controlling it, but users. You do not have to be a professional to operate an ink-jet printer or even a printing press nowadays. I would say that not the lab, but the tabletop will be the manufacturing floor.
Peterson: It is true that the lab, at some point, will be the new manufacturing floor. But the goal, as Chris points out, is in the longer term: to bring these things out to the consumer in order to actually manufacture items on-site where they are going to be used. This will eliminate huge transportation costs and the accompanying environmental damage. It will still be engineers developing products, but the people building them, once manufacturing is fully automated, will presumably be the consumers.
Phoenix: There are different kinds of product development. For example, a lot of software is developed under practices that simply would not fly in most other kinds of engineering. You do not ship an alpha version of a highway overpass and if it collapses, rebuild it. For products that are easy to rebuild if the current one is not satisfactory, their design could be more like software engineering than like any kind of mechanical or hardware engineering that we are familiar with today. We could see a much more rapid development of such products similar to the way that Web applications flowered as soon as the World Wide Web came along. Again, that does not apply to all products. It does not apply to safety-critical products, such as cars and medical devices. Those would require more traditional engineering. But I would think that lightweight consumer products could be developed very fast and very experimentally once we get programmable general-purpose nano-based rapid prototyping.
"When you have programmable molecular shapes, you can use one material–probably carbon lattice–to build sensors, motors, and computational systems."
–Chris Phoenix, director of research for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.
Will nanotechnology require different materials than traditional manufacturing? If so, what materials will be in demand?
Amiji: I will begin with the health perspective, specifically focusing on biomedical nanotechnology. We clearly will have to have different materials. There will be some issues specifically about materials– biological interfaces–and what kind of interactions such materials will induce or not induce. There are some efforts already on the way to design materials specifically for biomedical applications based on combinatorial synthesis approach and high throughput testing.
Peterson: Nanotechnology will require new and different materials. In some cases, over the longer term, we will see a continuation of the transition that we have already begun, moving away from using so much metal. We can expect that change to continue because we are finding that carbon-based materials in nanotechnology are very strong and very lightweight. This hopefully will mean that we will have to mine less metal, which should, in theory, help the environment. In the very long term, we would hope to get the carbon that we need from the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so we could combine taking carbon from the atmosphere with cleaning up the CO2. So it is a win-win there; it could be a very different world.
Phoenix: Looking in the post-productive-nanosystems time frame, it will be possible to build nanostructures that are engineered to perform all kinds of functions. When you have programmable molecular shapes, you can use one material–probably carbon lattice–to build sensors, motors, and computational systems. There will be less need for exotic materials when you can design functionality rather than having to use material properties. But when we can build engineered structures that perform engineering functions, programmable function coming from programmable structure coming from flexible manufacturing of carbon lattice, then we will be able to do a whole bunch of things with just one material in many shapes.
There is a lot of talk about various nanodevices that will perform tasks inside the body to improve health. How do we know that they are biocompatible, safe, and nontoxic?
Amiji: The issue of biocompatibility or safety of a product is really one of the most important challenges that we will have to address in developing nanotechnology for health applications and other areas where not only the consumers, but also the workers in this area, will be exposed. You will start to see a lot of effort in this area from various toxicologists who are looking at the safety issues of nanoparticles, whether it is with carbon nanoparticles or some other type of nanoparticle. The scientific data are really what will determine how these materials are performing. One of the ways to at least partially address some concern is something that we are doing in my lab, which is to focus on some of the biocompatible materials as starting points and look at what is already known about the safety issues of these materials. Then, we will investigate how we can develop and exploit the nanostructures made out of these materials for biomedical applications.
“The issue of biocompatibilty or safety of a product is really one of the most important challenges we will have to address”
–Mansoor Amiji, PhD, associate professor and codirector
of the Nanomedicine Education and Research Consortium at Northeastern University
Peterson: In terms of how we will know that various medical nanodevices will be safe for the patient, all of these things are going to obviously have to go through the same old standard procedures that we have been using for medical devices and pharmaceuticals now for quite a while. The procedures that we have in place, although not perfect, work pretty well for the patients over time. As Mansoor mentioned, in this case we also have to look at the workers who are producing these products and make sure that they also are safe. The whole regulatory community that deals with worker safety is starting to have to grapple with this question of how you regulate nanoparticles that may have potential issues. That is an area of active debate and is gaining a lot of attention right now. On the upside, at least it is getting that attention. The consumer can feel relatively happy that, compared to previous innovations, we are getting an earlier start on this issue.
Besides dealing with materials invisible to the naked eye, what are the biggest obstacles when working with nanotechnology?
Amiji: Our obstacles mainly come from not knowing what the interactions will be between the biological environment and these nanostructures. Sometimes it is the fear of the unknown that drives decisions, or just the lack of measurements of these interactions because we are dealing with a scale for which we do not yet have the tools to address some of the fundamental questions. Safety is going to be one particular challenge that we will have to address early on and also as we move towards developing more sophisticated nanostructures. We will have to continuously ask the proper questions to make sure that what we are doing and what we are working with is safe.
Peterson: I will address this issue on a different level, perhaps a more societal level, and identify at least two challenges. One is that nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary area. What that means is you need to get people from different academic departments, perhaps even different schools, to work together, and they are not used to doing that. This is a challenge and it is making people who are trying to do nanotechnology have to come up with new forms of organization, new centers where we can try to bring these folks together. The second big challenge is funding. This is not two guys and a PC in a garage, the way the software industry got started. The equipment is expensive, and projects take a larger team than many software projects do. It is good that we have the level of funding that we see now, but we could use even greater funding. Certainly in the medical area, it would be very easy to justify increased spending.
Phoenix: From my point of view, the biggest problem is that nanotechnology is not one field; it is not even a bunch of fields that have to work together. It is so broad that it is a bunch of fields that really have very little contact with each other. The problem is that there is only one word that covers all of this. One of the big problems is that when you say nanotechnology, are you talking about nanoparticles or nanobots or nanofactories?