Behind the Hype of Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology - defined in one dictionary as the engineering of matter at a scale approaching that of individual atoms - suffers from inflated expectations, according to a survey from the EC's Institute for Prospective Technological Studies.According to US visionaries lead by K. Eric Drexler, author of 'Engines of Creation', the ability to build structures atom by atom will change the world beyond all recognition. Submicroscopic robots called "assemblers" will be able to construct and modify any desired artefact, doing away with the need for factories and farms. Even doctors will be redundant - microminiaturised submarines will cruise our bloodstreams searching out and repairing ailing cells.
Compared with these exciting visions, the reality is mundane and disappointing. This report is a survey of 23 leading European researchers in nanotechnology carried out by Ineke Malsch of the EC's Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) in Seville in an attempt to find out what nanotechnology actually is and where it is going.
Flag of Convenience
The main conclusion is that there is not yet a unified field of nanotechnology, rather a group of widely disparate sub-disciplines which gather around the name like a flag of convenience. Nor is there much agreement on which fields of science and technology should be allowed to fly this particular flag. The problem is that most disciplines deal with structures on the molecular level. Chemists will say they were building with atoms and molecules for generations before Drexler was born. When does chemistry become nanotechnology?
Almost all the researchers offered quantum electronics and nanoelectronics as important fields of nanotechnology, yet there was surprisingly little support for protein engineering, in which protein molecules are constructed to order. Nor was the engineering of micro-electromechanical systems considered to be nanotechnology, since its tiny gear wheels and motors are still a thousand times too big.
When asked to suggest future applications of nanotechnology, researchers strongly favoured optoelectronics, with fewer applications in life sciences, environment, industrial technologies, materials and mechanical technologies.
If nanotechnology is ever to come of age, then the boundaries between disciplines need to disappear and the best way to achieve this is through education, most researchers agree. But change is coming slowly and may only be possible with the retirement of heads of traditional university departments. "There are indications that the education system seems like an oil tanker changing course," says the author, "Given some time, multidisciplinary education is likely to take over."
Nanotechnology in Europe: Experts' perceptions and scientific relations between sub-areas EUR 17710 EN
IPTS, Joint Research Centre, Seville
Fax: +34 5 44 88 39
English, 76 pp
In Brief ...
Small is beautiful
Technology moves fast. New developments and trends can have profound effects. Nanotechnology - which links two growing tendencies in manufacturing, namely miniaturisation and precision finishing - has been identified as one of the key technologies for the future.
This report looks at a wide range of current and potential uses of nanotechnology in many diverse fields and the impact that this may have on policy. If you want to stay ahead, this report merits reading.
Making it in Miniature - Nanotechnology,
UK Science and its Applications
POST Report 86,
Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, UK, 1996 (see page 7)
English, 44 pp, GBP 12
Pan-European transport networks are a priority within the EU. As part of the COST programme, COST-Transport promotes European co-operation in scientific and technical research in transport. Transport is well suited to COST given it's multidisciplinary nature and the need for concerted European action.
The launch of the revamped website provides easy access to a plethora of COST-Transport activities, including key information on actions already completed, underway or in preparation and their reports where available. A 'Frequently Asked Question' (FAQ) section anticipates the queries of most visitors. Related information on events, publications and contact details is also provided.
Not just for the lads...
This report is a mine of quantified feedback on initiatives from around the world of successful strategies for attracting girls into science, engineering and technology. The review and analysis was conducted by the Gender and Science and Technology (GASAT) Organisation.
Breaking the Mould
DTI Office of Science and Technology, UK, 1997,
English, 32 pp, Free of charge
DTI Office of Science and Technology, SEB DU, Desk UG.B.32, 1 Victoria Street, London, SW1H 0ET