[Outlook]The nanotech revolution

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[Outlook]The nanotech revolution

Nanotechnology is drawing attention as one of major four developments that will lead a second industrial revolution, along with information technology, biotechnology and environmental technology.

Nanotechnology controls matter at dimensions of 100 nanometers or smaller. People who are not scientists may have difficulty realizing just how small this actually is.

But the upshot of working at the nano level is that humankind now has the scientific capacity to measure and observe objects of a size that could only be imagined before, and even to create small structures that can function in that realm.

It allows us, if you’ll permit me an example that can illustrate the potential of nanotech, to create a tiny submarine, load it with a special bomb, and then put it inside a patient to search out cancer cells and destroy them.

This type of process can feasibly be achieved through nanocoatings that use the lotus effect, as well as anti-aging nanocosmetics and environmentally friendly technology that employ nanocatalysis.

Home appliances such as washers, freezers and TVs are produced with nanotechnology. In supermarkets, there are also antibiotic cutting boards, dishcloths and socks manufactured with nanotechnology. People who tend to regard nanotechnology as something high tech and therefore high quality, usually don’t mind paying a bit more for it. Parents with high school students who haven’t decided what to do after they graduate are interested in coverage of the future prospects of the industry.

With the United States, Europe and Japan engaged in fierce competition over nanotech, Korea is working hard to become one of the world’s top three countries in the field. It is estimated that the market will grow to $2.6 trillion by 2014, accounting for 15 percent of the world’s manufacturing market. As Korea is heavily reliant on exports, it must dedicate itself to developing original nanotechnologies. This country is now No. 4 in the world in the industry thanks to government research and development policy and competitive researchers.

Lately, however, many countries are paying attention to nanotechnology’s potential harmful effects on health and the environment. For instance, a study reported that carbon nanoparticles damage the lungs of mice. Since then, a series of studies have reported similar dangers. Nanoparticles are so small that they can enter a body and accumulate there easily, causing negative effects.

Of course, even before nanotechnology emerged, there were substances of similar size, such as volcanic dust. The problem with nanoparticles is that humans have manipulated them and little is known about what harm they may cause.

Companies that use nanotechnology could blindly adopt developments that have yet to be proven safe, their minds focused on making a quick profit. Or, it’s possible that some may inappropriately handle waste that includes nanoparticles, causing them to be released into the environment.

Civil society is crying out about the possible inappropriate usage of nanotechnology from around the world. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace warn that unauthorized nanotechnology is used in producing food items that do not include warning messages on their packaging. Such organizations urged the publication of the ins and outs of nanotechnology and the creation of an institution to discuss the issue. Domestic civic organizations are also showing an interest in making companies use nanotechnology in a responsible manner.

Under these circumstances, it was timely for the Ministry of Environment to announce a plan to control the safety of nanoparticles. As seen in the people’s distrust of the safety of tap water and the mass panic over mad cow disease, without sufficient communication and awareness, new issues related to complicated scientific or technological knowledge and public health can cause enormous social costs and divide the people.

In particular, if nano particles are proven to be harmful and ordinary citizens remain unaware of the danger, the news will likely send ripples throughout society, regardless of the seriousness of the risks. This kind of situation would have a negative impact on the government policy of making Korea a leading country in the field of nanotechnology.

We should keep our hopes up about what nanotechnology may be able to bring to society in the future, and develop industries related to the technology as a new growth engine with that in mind. But at the same time, we should take care to address the fears of ordinary citizens about potential side effects.

As was mentioned in a recent symposium on the health dangers posed by nanotechnology, “The fact that risks haven’t been proven yet doesn’t mean it is safe.”

These words are worth heeding.

*The writer is a professor in the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering of Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoon Je-yong
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