The truth behind Charles' grey goo fears

Will microscopic robots radically change the world around us?

Will microscopic robots radically change the world around us?

Tiny nanobots invisible to the human eye, replicating like wildfire and swamping the world in "grey goo" in a matter of days - or helpful aides in healthcare and manufacturing, used to create new materials and combat diseases?

The debate over nanotechnology has been rejuvenated following Prince Charles' recent comments that the technology could have "enormous environmental and social risks" if left unchecked. A concerned Charles has urged the Royal Society to launch an investigation into the perceived dangers of the technology.

However, at the University of Cambridge, Royal Society fellow Mark Welland is not overly concerned - far from it, in fact. Welland, who is the director of the Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Centre and professor of nanotechnology at the university, believes nanotechnology will have a positive impact on the way we live and work, providing new manufacturing techniques and IT advances to medical applications.

Under the microscope

Nanotechnology, which involves manipulating and manufacturing objects at the atomic or molecular level, enabling scientists to control and change the physical properties of materials, is "the ultimate level of engineering", said Welland. "You can define the fundamental properties of any material or structure. If you make a material on a small enough scale its properties change and it becomes lighter and stronger," he said.

This also means that you can make new materials of the same strength as existing ones with less material, thus reducing wastage.

Applications in development at Cambridge include capacitors made with carbon nanotubes that have a far greater capacitance than conventional materials and lightweight, durable materials that can be used in manufacturing. However, Welland said the centre is still primarily focused on the underlying science and engineering - such as methods of 3D assembly and nanofabrication - as opposed to commercial products.

"In many senses nanotechnology has not yet reached the level of maturity where you can predict products," said Welland. "It is all about tools - tools are extremely important." This is one of the reasons the Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Centre has not courted private sector funding, although Welland, who said there has been "enormous" commercial interest in the technology, stressed that this does not mean the centre does not want to engage commercially.

According to Welland, the kind of applications that get people in a lather, such as self-replicating nanorobots acting as antibodies in the human body, fighting foreign matter and destroying diseased cells, are more science fiction than blue sky.

"You have to take those things that the media has picked up on with a pinch of salt," he said. "We are a long way from building these complex nanorobots people talk about. I think what people are genuinely worried about is that if you can engineer the building blocks of nature, what can you come up with in the future?"

Welland is rather more relaxed about the situation than the media commentators. "It is simply the natural evolution of technology that has been going on for the past 3,000 years," he said.

Welland pointed out that the IT industry already uses nanotechnology in areas such as microchip manufacturing, and it has taken it for granted for a while now, but he said we are still at the dawn of the technology's evolution.

"The good thing for me is that I still think we are right at the start and the potential out there is enormous," he said. "I hardly feel as if we have begun. The world is our oyster."

Anyone who doubts the potential of the technology should listen to the National Science Foundation in the US, which has predicted that the market for nanotechnology products and services will reach $1,000bn (£660bn) by 2015.

Processor manufacturer Intel has a research lab at Cambridge University that is looking into nanotechnology. Staff from Intel and the university are collaborating on ubiquitous computing projects, developing proactive computers that anticipate user needs and act on their behalf using learning technology and probabilistic methods such as Bayesian nets or Stochastic models.

For doommongers such as Prince Charles, the flipside of this vision of the future is that users could be relegated from a position of calling the shots to being stuck in the middle like a glorified input/output device.

Intel's Cambridge laboratory focuses primarily on developing networking, systems and software technologies to enable new types of distributed systems. The research ties into Intel's R&D work into "smart dust" or motes - small bits of silicon built using nanotechnology that act as sensors and can be embedded in furniture and buildings, for example, and networked.

Applications for this technology include monitoring structures to check earthquake damage, monitoring the environment, and home healthcare monitoring. One problem is longevity. In pilots, these motes lasted for about six months in the wild. However, Intel is now working to make them self-powered - and that is where the fun will really begin.

Potential applications

  • Non-invasive medical procedures 
  • Developing stronger, lighter materials for use in manufacturing 
  • New data storage products based on high-density magnetic nanomaterials
  • Diagnostics, including the ability to tell in advance if someone is ill.

CV: Mark Welland of the IRC

Mark Welland is professor of nanotechnology and director of the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration in Nanotechnology at Cambridge University. His career in nanotechnology began in 1984 at IBM Research Laboratories in the US, where he was part of a team that developed one of the first tunnelling microscopes for imaging individual atoms. Welland is also editor in chief of the Institute of Physics journal Nanotechnology and co-chairman of the Co-operative Research Initiative in Nanotechnology (Corint) between the UK and Japan.

The Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration in Nanotechnology is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge, University College London and the University of Bristol. Launched in January 2002 with more than £20m of backing, it conducts research into understanding and controlling the physical properties of nanostructures and devices.

Getting wired: tell us the future

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