It looks like the carbon nanotube era is about to begin. This week's announcement from scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas about their process for quickly making long ribbons of CNT is surprising and remarkable. The ribbons they're making are transparent, flexible, and conduct electricity. Weight for weight, they are stronger than steel sheets, yet a square kilometer of the material would weigh only 30 kilograms.
Both will bring significant benefits as well as risks. However, the societal impacts of today's nanotechnologies almost all will be incremental — not transformative — and can be dealt with using existing systems, institutions, and solutions.
Consider the development of the CNT ribbon maker: it has great potential and many possible uses. It might generate millions, or even billions, of dollars in new products and new applications. But it is not yet known just how well it can be practically applied, how valuable it actually will be to existing industry, nor how severe the health or environmental dangers might be. Years may be required to answer all these questions.
This distinction is further demonstrated by another important announcement this week: the news that the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) and Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) have assembled the world's first database of nanoscience research related to benefits and risks. We're pleased to see this, because it indicates that the health and safety risks of nanomaterials are being taken seriously. It also shows that existing bodies can, with relative ease, meet the demand for accountability.
Advanced nanotechnology will be different. It will produce unprecedented and fundamentally different challenges that today's systems, institutions, and solutions will not be capable of handling.
Nothing in this article, however, should be construed as denigrating the spectacular achievement of the Texas researchers, nor indeed the thousands of others around the world who are doing very important, valuable, and beneficial work in various nanotechnologies. We applaud them and wish them well.
Our main message is that nanotechnology is hugely significant -- all types -- but it is molecular manufacturing that will bring revolutionary and disruptive changes to the world, as big as antibiotics, computers, and the assembly line, and as broad as all of those put together. Some of the possible effects are inspiring; others are disastrous. Effective preparation is vital and urgent.