What Use Is Nanotechnology?

Good question!

Technology Review, besides being a great magazine edited by Jason Pontin, who I have known since the heyday of Red Herring, also puts on some great conferences. So I was excited and honoured to be invited to EmTech Spain, a two day conference in Malaga focussing on emerging technologies.

Along with my World Economic Forum colleague Javier García Martínez of Rive Technology and the University of Alicante,  we were discussing what nanotechnology is, how to build a business out of it, and where it will take us.

Normally at these kind of conferences, discussing everything from the future of cities to social media, nanotech is one of the most futuristic and least understood technologies on the agenda – making me feel like a cuckoo in the nest when most peoples idea of emerging technology is something that they can have on their iPhone next week. However the “imagine a world where…” speech was given by Richard Kivel this time, discussing regenerative medicine, while Javier and I discussed existing and future applications of nanotechnologies.

So what use is nanotechnology? Simple, I think is makes a key contribution to addressing issues such as energy and health, allowing us to support today’s 7 billion and tomorrow’s 10 billion people in an increasingly sustainable manner. You can read my thoughts in the original Spanish, or as a rougher and less polished Q&A in English below.

1. If we make a more efficient use of resources (energy, agriculture, water) through technology, could a growing population (eg, India or China) join the living and consumption standards of the developed world? 
I’m an optimist about technology, after all it has got us this far, supporting another billion people every 12-14 years which would have been unimaginable only a hundred years ago. New technologies certainly help us make better use of resources but we have to remember that many of those resources – fossil fuels, minerals – are finite and their use does come at an environmental and social cost. If the plan was to continue with the same age old patterns of consumption, take-make-waste, then the answer to this question would have to be no. But in step with new technologies we are moving towards new patterns of consumption, with the energy balance shifting away from fossil fuels to renewables such as solar harvesting and biomass. So life in the 21st Century for China and India won’t all be Cadillac Eldorados, as social and economic pressures shift us into new modes of consumption. What I do think we will see is more sustainability, whether in energy or food, and new technologies being used to proactively prevent disease and pestilence – as we have already seen from genetically engineered plants to point of care medical diagnostics –  rather than simply cleaning up the mess.

2. This increase of efficiency due to the use of technology, must run in parallel with a reduction in consumption?
Although we think technology moves fast – not many people predicted the iPhone or Facebook – the big leaps forward, the ones that are really transformative take 15-30 years. The internet didn’t just appear in 2000, it was the combination of a range of different technologies maturing over the previous 30 years that made it usable, accessible and transformative. So we have to reduce consumption in the short term while we wait for the long term benefits of technology to kick in.

3. One of the main Cientifica´s aims is to ”set up and design technology and commercialization programs for governments around the world”. In which projects is involved and which challenges is facing now? 
In the last ten years we’ve advised everyone from Europe and the US to a number of Gulf and African states. The challenge is always the same, how to make the best use of your resources to get an economic impact. The most successful nanotechnology programs, for example, are in countries such as the US, Japan and Germany where industry is hungry for new technologies to maintain global competitiveness. But the research has to be appropriate, there is no point in setting up a centre focussed on semiconductors if the benefits of that research will end up in Singapore or San Jose.

4. What are the main differences between a nanotechnology program designed for Spain and one designed for South Africa, EEUU or China?

In some respects Asian programs are easier to design because there is more likely to be a long term vision of where the economy should be in 5, 10 or 20 years. In the rest of the world politician have to be convinced to continue programs every few years so it is important to be able to show results. I’m always an advocate of giving the funding to small innovative companies, the ones with high growth potential which will have the biggest economic effect in terms of jobs and tax revenues, but many agencies prefer a conservative approach, giving cash to large established industries which although reducing the chance of failure, also reduces the potential economic benefits.


5. One of Cientifica´s key ideas is that success in business depends not only on innovation but also in putting together technology and a global trend. Will nanotechnology be a standing out technology platform compared to others? Could you cite another three examples of technologies that would play an important role in the future?
Catching a trend is a must for any innovation based business. It can be a a technology trend such as Apple managed with mp3 audio, or a social trend such as Facebook, but having the right product at the right time is the most important factor in success.  But nanotechnology is no more a platform than chemistry or physics – it’s the application of the technology that matters, and that often involves intersecting with other areas of emerging technology.
Choosing three technologies out of all of those enabled by nanotechnologies is hard, but let’s start with organic, or plastic electronics, medical diagnostics and instrumentation.
Organic electronics means we print electronics, using inks containing nano particles which make them conducting or semiconducting, with a modified inkjet printer. So the cost of a printed electronics fab is around 10% of the cost of a silicon fab, and energy use is cut by 90% too. But don;t expect organic electronics to start competing with silicon. The CMOS technology developed over the past 50 years is very advanced and more importantly well characterised. What this means is that we can design a process t make a chip, and everything, from the yield of working devices to the input costs will behave pretty much as we expect. By contrast organic electronics in its infancy. It wont be able to make super fast processors like CMOS, but it has the advantage of being very very cheap, so when we talk about ubiquitous electronics or the ‘internet of things’ then a lot of those ‘things’ will be printed.
Medical diagnostics is another area that is ‘on trend.’ The use of all kinds of nanosensors, from quantum dots through carbon nanotubes to printed detectors addresses the problem of ageing populations and rising healthcare costs. Early diagnosis saves a huge amount of cost for health services and medical insurance companies. Combine this with genotyping to see what diseases you may be susceptible to, and also which treatments will work best and the balance of healthcare can shift from intervention to prevention.
Given my background in analytical instruments, I’d also have to add scientific instruments as a key enabler. Better instrumentation has enabled us to really start understanding how a lot of biological processes work, from the bottom up, and the more we understand about nature the easier it is to try to copy a few of those tricks.

6. More and more knowledge is being generated thank to computing and science interaction, but that growth is not proportional to the available capital to turn this ideas into products. Where can we find ways to finance early stage technology business, especially those that need a big inversion like cleantech/biotech start-ups?
This is the problems of the technology overhang. When we look at the worlds major problems we may already have a number of the technologies we need to start addressing them proactively, but unless we can find the right mechanisms to turn scientific innovation into usable technology then we will have wasted our effort. The innovation process is much more inefficient than most people imagine, relying on someone spotting the potential of a bit of science, that potential somehow being funded and then the resulting  company having the right people with the right skills and the right timing to get it to market. Venture capital isn’t too much help. Why bother with hard to understand, risky, expensive and long term stuff like nanotechnology when it only takes a couple of guys with a few laptops to create the next Facebook – and you’ll know whether it will work in 18 months rather than 5 years.
One of our projects which arose from work we have done with the World Economic Forum, is the creation of a Centre for Emerging Technology Intelligence which will look at the longer term issues and attempt to find ways to make the innovation process more efficient. It;s clear that we can;t just wait for a disater to happen and then expect to pluck the technological solution from a tree, we have to be much more proactive. But in doing this we have to also find the win-win-win situation for technology, business and society. While some emerging technologies may result in clear economic benefits for the developers, this is only a subset of the technologies available. In many cases the creation of shared public-private responsibility for their development may be the catalyst that unlocks the full potential of the technologies.
The new model is built on the premise that up-front investment in resources, knowledge and people will lead to a significant reduction in future liabilities.  Its success depends therefore on a commitment to invest in technology innovation in new ways.  This does not necessarily mean new financial investment, although in some cases this may be warranted.  Rather, it implies strategic investment in research, in knowledge translation, in networks, in systems and in people, which increases the likelihood of technology innovation supporting long-term social and economic development.

7. In which emerging technology would you recommend to invest in the coming years? Which countries and institutions will be the main investors?
I particularly like the area where life sciences, nanotechnology and information technologies are combining. Areas such as synthetic biology and regenerative medicine are already demonstrating their own versions of Moore’s law, and the development of cheap point of care diagnostics addresses so many economic and societal issues, while also circumventing major headaches such as privacy and data security concerns.

8. In terms of climate change and sustainability, carbon productivity will be a major concern for the industry. Is a priority to invest economic resources in developing CCS technologies or would be better to spend them in installing renewable energies that do not emit CO2?

I think we need to be a bit more ambitious in our outlook. Solar and wind energy are fine, but they don’t really address the cause of the problem, or come up with any kind of integrated or sustainable solution.  If we are serious about climate change, and we should be, then we need bold ambitious and global projects to address it, making use of the widest possible range of technologies. Even if we cut carbon emissions to zero tomorrow the CO2 already in the atmosphere will cause major effects for the next hundred millennia, so sticking a solar panel on your roof and cycling to work makes hardly any difference.  Of course we need both CSS and renewables in the short term, but we need to look kore than ten years ahead.
9. If we already have the technology to address global problems such as water shortages and disease… What are the real reasons of not being using it now? Who owns this kind of technologies and how are they like?

In many cases the reason is economic, the people most affected by water shortages and disease are those least able to pay. Our model for CETI puts a lot of emphasis on social in addition to financial entrepreneurship. Successful partnerships have already demonstrated the power of this approach, such as the Gates Foundation support of new metabolic routes to the production of the anti-malarial drug artemicinin – the technology platform allows the producer to develop other more economically viable drugs while making the anti malarial drugs available at low cost.


10. Will solar energy be able to provide energy security if a rise of efficiency is achieved due to nanotechnology breakthroughs? When do you estimate that we would reach that security status?

Solar will only ever be a part of the energy solution. We also have to look at storage and transmission in order to produce a workable solution. Billions have already gone into organic photovoltaics – the development of cheap plastic solar cells – and I’m confident that the current issues of efficiency and lifetime can be overcome. But its not the only solution, for example the planet creates 170 billion tones of biomass a year, of which we utilise around 7 billion tons, another massively under-used resource which could enable biotech based solutions such as bioreactors to play an important part in energy security. However, this creates another problem for Europe in that we cannot produce all the biomass we need for energy generation, so if we are not dependent on hydrocarbons from the middle east and Russia , we may be equally dependent on biomass imported from Africa!

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