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Engineering The Future Of Nanotechnology Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3906 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Why do we invest so much into nanotechnology. Governments, large companies, small businesses and investors alike, all realize the probability of high payouts and potential benefits that nanotechnology can offer us, so combined they all invest Billions of dollars per year into nanotechnology research and development. The EPA has stepped in trying to put a halt to nanotechnology until scientists and engineers can make nanotechnology a little more environmentally friendly. Nanoparticles have been found to have a negative impact on the environment. However, nanoparticles are a very small part of the large picture. Still they are working on ways to reduce the amount of nanoparticles that get into the environment, furthermore, ways to filter out the ones that have already gotten out there. Nanotech is being used currently in thousands of consumer products and it is only expected to grow. The benefits that nanotech offer us far outweigh the environmental implications. Nanotech can help lower cost of manufacturing, improve fuel mileage, save consumers money, and make our everyday lives easier, as well as, make new products and materials, make current products stronger, more durable, and excessively large items more space friendly. Nanotech is also being tested and used in the medical field to possibly fight cancer and other diseases. The money invested in nanotechnology is well worth the time and effort.

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Engineering and the Future of Nanotechnology

Seeking Failure?

Nanotechnology has been the gold of the future for the last couple decades; this is why so many countries have been digging deeper into the research they have been funding. Just as the miners did for gold back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. However, unlike gold there is no limit to what Nanotechnology can do for us. Governments recognize there is a strong opportunity for high profits from Nanotechnology; subsequently they keep investing in it. Many people have absolutely no clue what exactly nanotechnology is. When I asked a friend who is knowledgeable about many different things what he knew about the subject, he simply said, “nothing besides little robots”. Nanotechnology is all around us; however, we do not realize it because this is a technology that is far too small for the eye to see. The smallest thing that the human eye can see without the help of a microscope or magnifying lens is .1 mm, 1 nanometer = 1 billionth of a meter or .000001 mm. However, a couple questions still stand. Is all the money we invest into nanotechnology worth it for something we cannot see, or will the billions invested pay off for success in the future? 

Birth and Growth of Nanotechnology

Even though nanotechnology is “new” per se, there is a fairly large amount of history involved. Nanotechnology was first mentioned in 1959 by an American physicist named Richard Feynman during a speech he gave at Caltech. Feynman spoke of a way that may be developed to manipulate atoms and molecules on the nanoscale. Fifteen years later in 1974, Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi defined “nanotechnology” as a technology that, “mainly consists of the processing of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule” (Kazlev, 2003). This term is still the foundation today. However, it was not until K. Eric Drexler started writing his books and giving speeches that nanotechnology started to gain attention, as well as criticism. Drexler was the first person to teach a class on nanotechnology. In addition, Drexler wrote his first book titled “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology” (Drexler, 1986) that dove in to some aspects of Nanotechnology or as he called it “Molecular Nanotechnology” and introduced the concept of “nano-assemblers”. Followed by a book he coauthored in 1991 with Christine Peterson and Gayle Pergamit, “Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution.” Finally, his Ph.D. thesis from MIT, “Molecular Engineering: An approach to the development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation” later became published as “Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation” (Drexler, 1992) and earned the AAP for Best Computer Science Book. Drexler taught the first course in Molecular Manufacturing at Stanford in the late 80’s as well as authored the textbook for the course. In 1981, the first Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) was invented by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, which was the first microscope to be able to view at the nanoscale. Shortly followed by the first atomic force microscope invented by Binnig, Calvin Quate and Christoph Gerber in 1986. IBM researcher Don Eigler was the first to manipulate atoms in 1989 using the (STM). “He used 35 Xenon atoms to spell out the IBM logo.” Sumio Iijima won the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience for the discovery of carbon nanotubes in 1991. Richard Smalley was a Professor of Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy at Rice University in Houston, TX, additionally; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1996, “for the discovery of fullerenes”, a new carbon which led to carbon nanotubes (Press Release: The 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry). In 2001, Smalley criticized Drexler’s 1992 book when he attacked Drexler’s ideas of nano-bot assemblers. Saying that it would not be possible, pointing out problems such as “sticky fingers” and “fat finger” problems. Smalley was saying that the nano-assemblers arms would have to be larger than the atoms they are moving and this would make them too large to place them in the precise location. Furthermore, since the assemblers are themselves made up of atoms that they would have a problem moving an atom with an atom without it sticking to the atom comprised assembler. These arguments led to debates between the two in which Drexler and his team proved Smalley’s theory to be invalid (Baum, 2003, p. 37-42). Only to be followed by a book “The singularity Is Near” by Ray Kurzweil, who devoted four pages to  proving Richard Smalley’s arguments are not valid, and disputing them. Kurzweil concludes by stating that Drexler’s vision is truly feasible and even already occurring (Kurzweil, 2005, p. 236-241).

Where does the funding come from?

Independent research companies, government and manufactures all realize that the possibility of the potential benefits from nanotechnology could prove to be extremely profitable. Additionally, nanotechnology could give us all easier lives, better products, and even cures for certain diseases and cancers. So in short they all pitch in on the funding. Currently we are spending about $4 Billion per year on nanotechnology research and development, of this $2 billion comes from large industries, the other half comes from smaller businesses, and investors, in addition to, Federal, state and local government (Funding Opportunities, 2013).

What It Is That We Can Not See

How a drop of rain can hold its place on a pane of glass, how post-it notes are able to hold two pieces of paper together (Bhushan, 2012). As well as, how a gecko can adhere to and walk up any surface rough as a rock or smooth as a window and the way that oil creates a lubricating coating on moving engine parts to reduce friction (Wave Inc., 2012); these are all examples of nanotechnology. Scientists and Engineers have been working to replicate the things that mother nature has provided us, such as car wax, which not only protects the clear coat, but it also works a lot like the Lotus leaf. When dirt and dust particles land on a Lotus leaf, the leaf does not become dirty, rather than the leaf soaking up the water and dirt, rain simply rolls off taking any dirt with it (Bhushan, 2012). Car wax works in a similar way, creating a protective barrier that is smoother than the clear coat to the touch, which helps the rain bead up and roll off the car taking dirt particles and bird droppings with it. Furthermore, engineers have designed “self-cleaning” windows, which also replicate the function of the Lotus leaf.

Fool’s Theory

Many people have heard of the “dual use dilemma” and “Grey Goo” theory, and many scientists, engineers and researchers talk about it. Literally everything you see has the dual use dilemma, a text book can be used as a learning tool, or it can be used as a paper weight. Guns can be used for protection and hunting your next meal, or in the wrong hands they can be used to commit mass homicide. We can use a paperclip to hold loose papers together, or to pick a lock. Nanotechnology is no different, it can be used for all the benefit and ease our lives or in the wrong hands it could be used in a negative manner.

The “Grey Goo” theory was originally mentioned by Drexler in his book, The Engines of Creation defined as,

“Early assembler-based replicators could beat the most advanced modern organisms. ‘Plants’ with ‘leaves’ no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with inedible foliage. Tough, omnivorous ‘bacteria’ could out-compete real bacteria: they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least if we made no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.” (Drexler, 1986, ch. 11)

However, Drexler along with other engineers and scientists have completely eliminated the idea of such a theory. If this truly were a possible outcome, we would create limits as to the capabilities of such molecular assemblers. Furthermore, we would create an antivirus so to speak, which would be in a sense, nano-soldiers which would control the over production and over population of the nano-assemblers.

What’s the Harm?

Most of the studies dealing with negative effects of nanotechnology more specifically speak of the harmful effects of nanoparticles. One study at Duke University revealed that silver nanoparticles which are used in several consumer products could have negative effects on plants. Silver nanoparticles are found in toys and pacifiers, clothing, disinfectants and even toothpaste. Studies have shown that silver nanoparticles have no negative effect on humans, however, anything that ends up in the trash or goes down the drain will eventually make its way into the environment (Silver Nanoparticles, 2013). Dentists say to brush your teeth at least twice daily, environmentalists would probably ask you to do so once every other day to reduce the amount of silver nanoparticles going down your drain. Eva Oberdorster, Ph.D., conducted tests on fish that were exposed to fullerenes. What she found is that even after just 48 hours of exposure to a small dose, “the fish exhibited changed gene markers in their livers, indicating their entire physiology was affected,” the same test showed that the fullerenes “killed water fleas which are a large link in the marine food chain” (Kayne, 2013). Fullerenes were discovered by Richard Smalley in 1985, Fullerenes are also known as (Buckyballs) or C60 which is a form or carbon. Oberdorster was unable to reveal if these fullerenes can also cause brain damage in humans, saying that further testing would need to be done. Other studies show that nanoparticles do accumulate in lab animals. Furthermore, “fullerenes move freely through soil and could be absorbed by earthworms,” (Kayne, 2013). In a study at the University of California in San Diego, they discovered that the nanoparticles cadmium selenide “can cause cadmium poisoning in humans” (Kayne, 2013). Experts say that the people most at risk are those who are employed by companies that produce products containing nanoparticles. As of today there are no cases that have been directly attributed to death or illness due to nanoparticles. However, there are ongoing studies to find possible dangers. Depending on the outcome of those studies, engineers will most likely engineer a process to filter out the nanoparticles in the air, water and ground so they don’t affect the way we live. In addition, with all the possible negative effects of nanoparticles that has been discovered, this does not mean all of nanotechnology has negative effects, furthermore, other parts of nanotechnology could potentially be used to control and contain nanoparticles.

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How Is Nanotechnology Used Today?

Nanotechnology is being used all around us, from building materials to the medical field, and Auto Manufactures to food products. Some of the different types of nanotechnology include; nanocomposites, nanocrystals, nanoparticles, nanostructured materials, nanocomposite coatings, nanotubes, nanocatalysts, and nanofilters. Toyota and GM auto manufacturers have started using nanocomposites for weight reduction, which in turn improves fuel consumption. They have also started using these nanocomposites in bumpers. In addition to weight reduction, these materials are also better at resisting scratches and dents (Wave Inc., 2012). Nanocrystals could potentially be used in automotive parts, to increase strength and reduce wear in things such as wheel bearings and ball joints. Nanoparticles are currently being used in stain resistant clothing, exterior paints and adhesives, sunscreen and the food and drug industries just to name a few. These nanoparticles are much smaller than what they are replacing, specifically in sunscreen; they use nanoparticles of zinc oxide, which better protects your body from the harmful UV rays, as well as spreading better and more evenly. Causing the need to use less sunscreen to cover the same area; additionally, since these particles are so small it eliminates that white film that traditional sunscreen would leave on your skin.

Furthermore, copper nanoparticles are added to lubricants such as oil, and antifreeze to help reduce engine wear in cars and trucks. Nanostructured materials such as “tungsten-carbide-cobalt composite powder (grain size less than 15nm) that is used to make a sintered alloy as hard as diamond” are used in various parts and tools that rely on hardness and durability such as drill bits, and jet engine components. In addition to improving current products, nanoclays are being used by companies like Nanocor to develop new products, which could replace former metal, glass or wood containers and packages (Nanocor, 2006). The nanocomposite coating currently used in tennis balls could potentially be used with other rubber products like tires, making them longer lasting and lighter. Nanotubes have a wide range of use; essentially everything that strength and weight play a role in will eventually employ the use of nanotubes; from automotive and aerospace, to toys and bikes since Nanotubes are about 1/10,000th the weight and much stronger than steel. Engineers and scientists have created a material called graphene which is already the strongest material.

“Well in short, graphene is one the strongest materials ever manufactured. It has a breaking strength 100 times greater than steel and weighs thousands of times less (10,194 times less to be exact). Graphene can be rolled up into tubes, called carbon nanotubes, which are even stronger than graphene sheets. Carbon nanotubes can then be spun together and woven into fibers which are much more flexible and useful as an engineering material. If you can believe it, carbon nanotubes are even harder than diamond. So it comes as no surprise that research is already underway towards developing carbon nanotube composite body armor for police and military applications as well as building an elevator to space, just to name a few ideas.” (Niebert, K. 2013)

Who Is Nanotechnology Benefiting?

Nanotechnology is benefiting everyone, from private investors and manufactures, to governments and consumers. Manufacturing products use to be expensive and time consuming, with all the technologies today that has been thrown out the window. Nanotechnology is making products easier to produce, more durable, and longer lasting. This technology also has the potential to make all of our lives easier, both with the products that are yet to come and the way you currently perform your job tasks. We are going to start to see products that perform the same function as current products but require less space. Imagine just as you would use a thumb tack to put a piece of paper on the wall, the small amount of space that sheet of paper uses, could soon be replaced by a TV or computer screen of the same thickness. Nanotechnology is being used to make cars both lighter and more durable, which helps increase fuel mileage and reduce the chance of scratches or dents from a minor bump with another car. Fuel mileage use to not be a huge deal, but with gas prices rising and cars getting lighter improving closer to the mileage you desire, we have nanotechnology to partially thank for that savings in your pocket or bank account. Solar panels were originally pretty large, expensive and slightly ineffective. Nanotechnology is starting to take its role to reduce the size of these outdated solar panels to create a smaller, more effective and more price friendly solar panel. Nanotechnology is also in the process of helping cancer patients as well as Alzheimer sufferers. Manufacturers are spending less money and less time creating products using Nanotechnology. Eventually we could see what Eric Drexler once spoke of with the molecular manufacturing. Think about all those cloths you had to throw out because your child decided to play in the mud, slipped and fell in the mud with their nice clothes on, or got spaghetti sauce on their new t-shirt. Nanotechnology came to defend us again with the use of silver nanoparticles. Hunting cloths makes use of another part of nanotech with clothing that blocks scent and a new line called ElimiTick, which repels ticks that may carry lime disease, as well as chiggers and other insects. So if you’re a hunter and don’t want to come back from the woods with that itch or burning bite that we have all had, we can now thank nanotechnology for another great innovation. Remember that slimy white layer of sunscreen that your parents would smear on you as a kid? Most sunscreen’s these days use nanoparticles of zinc oxide rather than the non-nanoparticles that use to be used, the non-nanoparticles that use to be used was what caused that white milky color over the skin. It has been shown that zinc oxide nanoparticles are able to absorb into our skin, however, zinc is an essential mineral and is used in many foods as well as supplements, and so the absorption could actually be beneficial.

What the Future May Hold

Many people would say that what the future of nanotechnology holds for us is endless. A quote from Douglas Mulhall, “the future of nanotechnology is potentially boundless if we can avoid the pitfalls. Some of the items that exist today were a topic of science fiction a decade ago,” (Goldman, L., & Coussens, C., 2005, p. 11). The list is literally endless as to what nanotech could bring for the future. But as many people think about nanotechnology is that it is about tiny robots and miniaturizing everything, that is not the key. Yes we will see many things get smaller, but these are things that need to be smaller. Nanotechnology is not going to change the size of a queen size bed, but it could make that mattress a lot lighter and longer lasting than what they currently are. Nanotechnology is not going to make the screen on your TV smaller, but it will be used to make the thickness and weight of the set dramatically reduced. There are plenty of things that need to be smaller or more efficient and nanotechnology will help us accomplish this. We aren’t going to use nanotech to miniaturize things that are already small enough, we are going to use it to make useful items fit into smaller cases, such as a desk top computer, which typically has a large foot print so people switch to laptops. But many laptops are still bulky and heavy, especially if you are looking to get one with a bigger screen, and who wants to carry all their books and a heavy laptop around all day. Nanotechnology will make use of lighter weight, more durable materials and make the internals of the computer smaller to fit in a slimmer body. Sooner or later we could see things that we currently only see in our dreams and in movies, such as the technologies they have used in all the Mission Impossible movies, Avengers, and even the newer 007 movies have shown things that we could soon see on shelves. A TV that is as thin as plastic wrap, that has no remote, you look at it and it turns on, or you move your hand and it changes the channel. There has been talk about integrating cell phones with our brains so we don’t have to distract our hands. Furthermore the medical field could see great advances; we have already made the old dinosaur pacemaker into something small, portable and convenient. We have also created artificial organs, they are still researching them but they are out there. Nanotechnology has been used to create artificial bone which can replace a section of bone and fuse together with the bones in your body rather than having screws, bolts and plates in our body. They are working on creating nanobots, not the ones we all think of, but the ones they want to use to deliver medications and figuratively use them as little soldiers in our bodies, attacking harmful cells, tumors and cancer causing cells. Furthermore, they are working on ways to use nanotechnology to assist in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease. Nanotechnology is being used all around us and is only going to grow, so the best thing we can do is prepare for it and accept it. The future is going to be a lot easier on us and we will have nanotechnology to thank for it.


Some would argue that we are wasting billions of dollars researching nanotechnology and that it is going to turn around and end life as we know it. But maybe life as we know it is not the way life is meant to be, maybe life is supposed to be easier, with better and more durable products, maybe life is supposed to be about saving money for things that we really want rather than having to continually replace broken things and torn or stained cloths due to inferior materials. And maybe cancer and other diseases are meant to be overcome and treated. In the end, nanotechnology will only help us and it will be well more than worth the time and money we spend on researching and making use of it.






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