An Industry on an Atomic Scale: Nanotechnology, the hype of the infinitely small

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Temps de lecture : 11 minutes  

The word “nano” has a mighty and nebulous power…almost magical. Yet it is difficult to really know how broad its scope is. Does it refer to all research and experiments on a nanometer scale (a billionth of a meter)? A wide marketing campaign to rename, under the attractive heading of “boundaries of the infinitely small,” the physical chemistry of materials? Or even a unifying project combining the techno science of matter, life, and information? The fact remains that nanomaterials are there, among us, and have already been put on the market in the form of carbon nanotubes, nanolasers in DVD players, nanochips for bioassays, etc. “Molecular factories” with conveyors, swivel arms, and conveyor belts that are a hundred thousand times smaller than the diameter of a hair are being contemplated. Observing matter and working with it on an atomic scale opens up a fascinating horizon of promising innovation. The dream is definitely to “reproduce what life has created, but in our own way,” according to Jean-Marie Lehn, 1987 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Some even claim that the technique must subrogate Darwinian evolution in order to take control of the fate of humanity… But the enthusiasm is polluted by anxiety when some scientific visionaries, such as Eric Drexler, come to fear the worst: humanity’s loss of control of nanorobots capable of reproducing and taking over space.

In fact, the idea of manipulating atoms—the elements that make up matter—has become a reality. The scanning tunneling microscope (1), developed in 1982, enabled both “zooming into the universe of atoms” and “Lilliputian engineering,” capable of moving atoms at will. The prospect of “molecular manufacturing,” mentioned by Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation (2), has opened up. Wheelbarrows, vacuum cleaners, molecular cars, single-atom transistors, quantum computers (3), etc., are under construction.

All sorts of other technologies gravitate around this “core business,” which is based either on miniaturization or, this time starting from a “bottom-up” approach, molecular reorganization, behind new physical chemistry properties. While on the macroscopic scale, the combined effect of millions of atoms is predominant, by isolating nano-objects, only made up of a few atoms, specific behaviors can arise: enlarged exchange surfaces (increased reactivity), mechanical resistance, optical, electromagnetic, or thermal functions, etc. More than the chemical nature of the material, it is the spatial organization of atoms that becomes the determining factor.

Faced with the unknown of potential emerging properties, some predict revolution, others continuity. Already, all major manufacturing sectors—electronic, textile, medical, food-processing, or energy—are affected by this technological storm. Daimler-Benz automotive group sells vehicles with brake boosters or engine parts made of carbon nanotubes a hundred times more resistant and six times lighter than steel; IBM manufactures transistors a hundred thousand times thinner than a single hair; researchers from Cornell University in the United States, and from the Curie Institute in France, are building molecular motors. For the last few years, the cosmetic industry has been fabricating zinc oxide nanoparticles to make longer-lasting lipstick, titanium dioxide nanoparticles to filter ultraviolet radiation, and zirconium powder (zirconium oxide) nanoparticles for nail polish.

For several industrial giants, production on the submicron scale (below the millionth of a meter) is necessary in order to survive. Sony, like STMicroelectronics (a partner of Motorola and Philips Semiconductors International BV), just invested 1.5 billion Euros in the manufacturing of semiconductors machined just under 90 nanometers. In the textile sector, the projects are focused on metallic fibers capable of holding energy or integrating sensors. Nanomaterials can also improve the output of energy systems, make it possible to store hydrogen, or provide effective thermal barriers. From a health standpoint, nanodrops can constitute new “carriers” of active matter, which can be discharged in situ by infrared heating or a magnetic field. The number of applications in the field of biometrics or miniaturized nomad information systems is growing, even if they are still at a micrometric scale. Last year, Applied Digital Solutions received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (American authority in terms of medicines) for its “implantable medical microchip,” which is embedded under the skin and transmits the patient’s complete medical history through Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

The nano-industry is not an emerging one, but rather a range of means to manipulate matter and render existing materials adaptable (“intelligent”) and hybrid (electronic half-silicon, half-organic),” highlight economists Stephen Baker and Adam Aston (4). This should lead to changes in innovation methods, reorganization of many industrial sectors, as was the case with the computer, electronic, and biotechnology industries. The first breakthroughs will involve biomaterials, catalysts, diagnoses, and electronics. Various disciplines should merge in order to better serve as an interface between the living and inanimate matter, where chemistry, electronics, genetics, and even cognitive sciences converge.

Investments are rolling in. The American National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) estimated world efforts (academic and industrial) for nanotechnologies in 2005 at around 9 billion dollars, with a fairly even distribution among Asia, Europe, and the United States. Between 1998 and 2003, public investments were multiplied by six in Europe, by eight in both the United States and Japan. According to the American National Science Foundation (NSF), the world market for these technologies, which already represented 40 billion dollars in 2001, should reach 1 trillion dollars per year in 2010 (5).

The nano-train is off and running. However, we still do not know what impact these technologies will have on health (6). What happens when carbon nanotubes are dispersed into the air and inhaled, or when titanium dioxide particles are applied onto the skin as sunscreen? Nanomaterials do not constitute a homogenous group of substances. Their particles can vary in size, shape, surface, chemical composition, and biological persistence. However, they are always highly reactive. In an article entitled “Nanotechnology: looking where we leap?,” which compiles toxicology works accomplished on nano-objects, Ernie Hood, a US toxicologist, reveals some worrying results (7), particularly with regard to inflammatory reactions in lung tissues that were exposed to carbon nanoparticles demonstrated by Günter Oberdöster, researcher at the University of Rochester in New York.

Improving Human Performance

Already two fears have surfaced: first, nanopowders—due to their fineness—can propagate into all areas of the body, pulmonary alveoli, blood, and even through the hemato-encephalic barrier which protects the brain. The British toxicologist Vyvyan Howard illustrated the issue by showing that gold nanoparticles could move across the placental barrier and therefore carry compounds from a mother to her fetus. Secondly, the shape of the nanoproducts could be the cause of toxic effects. Thus, like asbestos fibers, carbon nanotubes could enter the lung alveoli and provoke cancer. The fact that nanoproducts currently being produced are not well understood makes their possible health impact difficult to determine. Often made up of a combination of nanofibers—nanoparticles and various catalysts (aluminum or iron)—nanotubes already on the market seem to be even more inflammatory due to poor purification.

The British physicist Ann Dowling, who presided over the report dedicated to nanotechnologies issued by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering published in July 2004, asks manufacturers “to limit exposure to nanotubes, disclose their toxicology tests, and conduct thorough research to define their biological impacts (8).” For the time being, approximately twenty companies in the world are already developing test production of carbon nanotubes, taking various precautions…. “We work in suits or headgear, in a depressurized atmosphere and under hoods,” says Pascal Pierron, head of Nanoledge, based in Montpellier. At the research headquarters in Saint-Gobain, they are considering putting an end to work considered too risky. For his part, Patrice Gaillard, nanotubes project manager at Arkema who is developing a pilot project in Pau, announced in January 2005 “the beginning in 2007 of a production averaging several tons per year (9).”

The British Academies took this challenge head-on and issued twenty one recommendations. The authors of the report request that nanoparticles and nanotubes not be spread and also decided that a database will be created that outlines the toxic effects, bioaccumulation, and specific exposure of populations to various environments. They advocate raising awareness among laboratory researchers and personnel who face ethical and social risks, as well as involving the public. In terms of legislation, they feel we need to ensure that the control of nanotechnology is fully covered under existing or future laws. This will be a delicate task given how difficult it already is to record toxic effects in the chemistry sector. We can see how much the ambitions of the European regulation REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals), which aimed at measuring the effects on health and the environment of thirty thousand chemical substances (30% of industrial products), are revised downwards with the pressure of lobbying.

Authorization systems for substances must be thoroughly reviewed: indeed, they only rely on the description of the chemical composition of products (European Inventory EINECS or the world inventory CAS). But with nanomaterials, that is no longer enough since the spatial organization of their atomic elements can trigger biological effects (such as carcinogenic effects).

Insurance companies’ positions clearly show the extent of the uncertainties. In 2004, the firm Swiss Re warned against the rush towards nanotechnologies, reminding of the “unpredictable nature of the risks that they can cause, as well as the reoccurring and cumulative losses they may generate (10).” Even lobbyists point out the risk that “an accident involving nanoparticles trigger a defensive reflex with regards not only to the relevant material but perhaps also to nanotechnologies as a whole (11)”.

Since substantial sums have already been invested, everyone would like to believe that the risks are minor and most of all, controllable. At Rice University (Houston, US), a Mecca of reflection on nanotechnology, researcher Kristen Kulinowski is optimistic: “If we can control surface properties, we can avoid toxic effects,” she hopes. This optimism is echoed by Sean Murdock, executive director of the US manufacturer NanoBusiness Alliance, who agrees that “the risks are there, they are real, but they are manageable.” In Europe and the US, even if many programs on the health risks involved have been launched, they will not exceed much more than 3% or 6% of “nano budgets.”

Some, such as Francis Chateauraynaud, sociologist at the EHESS (School for advanced studies in the social sciences), are exploring the possible convergence between biotechnologies, physical chemistry, computers, and cognitive sciences. In his report “Nanosciences and Technoprophecy,” he writes that “we still need to figure out whether or not these operations are essentially cohabiting simply by the magic of words and the guarantee that official discourses award them with (12).” Others, on the contrary, speak of BANG (acronym of “bits, atoms, neurons, and genes”) to designate this interdisciplinary connection likely to enable auto-organization and replication phenomena. For them, we are leaving the door wide open for the unknown, the unpredictable… It is the unknown land.

To this fascinating perspective, Americans have attributed a view of “improving human performances”. In its report on nano-bio-info-cognosciences (NBIC) published in June 2002, the NSF describes converging technologies as a means to “enable universal material and spiritual well-being, peaceful interaction between humans and intelligent machines that is mutually beneficial, complete elimination of obstacles to widespread communication, particularly those resulting from language differences, access to inexhaustible energy sources, and the end of concerns regarding environment degradation (13).” This course feeds a powerful “economy of promise” and ideologically goes with the transhumanist flow which is supported by one of the authors, Williams Sims Bainbridge, director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF and a sociologist of religion. This sphere of influence defends the freedom to use drugs and medication, cryopreservation of the body, as well as gene and cerebral drugging. It flaunts the technique as a cure-all solution that will resolve social and human problems, which are being increasingly insidiously treated with medicine.

Confronted with this problematic official American position, the European Commission published a “response” in September 2004 in a report entitled “Converging Technologies: Shaping the Future of European Societies” (14). The authors consider that nanotechnology must be geared toward human and not financial ends, contribute to building a “knowledge-based society, facilitating transportation, and create ‘assistants’ to serve the public interest.”

This divergence became very clear during the NanoEthics Conference, which was held at the University of South Carolina in March 2005,” observes Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, philosophy of science professor at the University of Paris-X and author of a study on myths surrounding new technologies (15). “It is true that, on the one hand, there is the euphoria of Drexler and apostles like Ray Kurzweil, with their extremely messianic behavior that elicits a whole rhetoric that is a little religious and, on the other, an apocalyptic catastrophism. I would almost suggest that these antagonistic attitudes reinforce each other and converge (…). Beyond that, nanotechnology is an opportunity, a wonderful time to finally question these techniques, their meaning, evolution, implications, and if possible to open them up to be discussed by the public.” Bensaude-Vincent emphasizes the ambivalence of scientists, who believe they are controlling their products even while they are looking to create original, uncontrolled properties.

It is imperative that we consider the possibilities and evaluate the effects of nanoproducts that are still virtual. From this point of view, the fiction that creates scenarios in direct connection with visionary scientists’ discourse is key to the debate; it has anticipated for a long time the threat of nanorobots, implants, and self-organizing, self-replicating machines that we see playing the role of assemblers and reproducing in Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation, taking control of the enemy’s brain to destroy them by remote control in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, or transforming themselves in “grey goo” in Michael Crichton’s Prey (16).


Developing without a struggle (except for a few interactions with civil society in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the US in Madison), nanotechnologies are likely to be countered by protest movements, like in Grenoble where the former journalist from Actuel Yannick Blanc, leader of the activist group Pièces et main-d’œuvre (PMO) is using all available means to denounce the “technological hold (17).” Like the public strategy of appealing to the public that we saw with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), we can observe the development of a “serenade” praising nanosolutions as benefiting the poor (18).

These critical points are taken seriously by the intergovernmental platform that was formed in June 2004 in Alexandria (Virginia) at the initiative of the NSF and the Meridian Institute. Some sixty representatives from twenty five countries—including China, Japan, Russia, Australia, Israel, India, and South Africa—met to implement an “international preparatory group on responsible nanoscience.” Françoise Roure, French representative, delivered a report, written in collaboration with the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, to members of the industry and research community in February 2005 entitled “Ethics and Industrial Potential,” which outlines thirteen recommendations, including the need for a European societal observatory of nanotechnology. The authors consider that “the models of society, their values, as well as the direction of objectives they choose, as well as the priorities and limits they set are vulnerable to the industrial meta-convergence. The artificialization of nature has shown the limits of what is acceptable with sometimes violent reactions to GMOs (…). What can we say about the naturalization of mankind (…) if we can become devices, scientific products, or be transformed, improved, and exploited by using the laws of nature?”

The most worrying remains the infiltration of those “fascinated by technique”—such as the physicist Ray Kurtzweil or transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom—in think tanks that are supposed to lead the future, such as the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (19).

On the military front, the power of killer nanotools or self-sufficient systems presents a real risk of domination: almost half of US public investments (445 million dollars in 2004) was dedicated to military use. Protective or lightweight gear, nanoweapons, and on-board intelligence are also mobilizing China, which has a nanotechnology center with two thousand scientists in Shanghai. According to the German physicist Jürgen Altmann (20), the major risks come from the split in mutual dissuasion procedures (not being able to control undetectable weapons) and self-replicating nano-devices.


(1) Which earned the 1986 Nobel Prize for its inventors Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer.

(2) Published in English in 1986, and recently translated in French: Engins de création. L’avènement des nanotechnologies (The Engines of Creation. The Advancement of the Nanotechnologies), Vuibert, Paris, 2005.

(3) Computer capable of carrying out a billion parallel calculations; which can enable it to break any sort of secret code, for example.

(4) « The business of nanotech », Business Week online, 14 February 2005.

(5) Gilles Le Marois and Dominique Carlac’h, « Les nanomatériaux au cœur de la galaxie nano (The nanomaterials at the heart of the nano galaxy) », in Les Nanotechnologies, Les Annales des Mines (Nanotechnology, the Annals of the Mines), « Réalités industrielles (Industrial Realities) », February 2004.

(6) « Nanomonde: et si l’on parlait de sécurité sanitaire (Nanoworld: and yes we were talking about health security)», in the book by André Cicolella and Dorothée Benoit-Browaeys, Alertes santé. Experts et citoyens face aux intérêts privés (Health Alerts. Experts and Citizens Face Private Interests), Fayard, Paris, May 2005. Also read « Nanotechnologies: a preliminary analysis of the risks » (in English).

(7) Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 112, no13, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Arley (South Carolina), September 2004.

(8) Conference on 26 May 2005 on « The reponsible development of the nanotechnologies » at the Great Britain Embassy in Paris.

(9) During the seminar at the Observatory for Micro and Nanotechnologies, 27 January 2005, in Paris.

(10) « Nanotechnology : Small matter, many unknowns », Swiss Reinsurance Company, Zurich, 2004.

(11) New Cordis, 8 July 2005.

(12) Francis Chateauraynaud, « Nanosciences et technoprophéties. Le nanomonde dans la matrice des futurs (Nanosciences and technoprophecies. The nanoworld in the matrix of the future) », GSPR-EHESS, Paris, April 2005.

(13) Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge (under the direction of), Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and cognitive science, June 2002, National Science Foundation, Arlington (Virginia).

(14) Alfred Nordmann, « Converging technologies: Shaping the future of European societies », European Commission, 26 July 2004. Also see Wolfgang Bibel, Daniel Andler, Olivier da Costa, Günter Küppers, Ian Pearson, « Converging technologies and the natural, social and cultural world », European Commission, 26 July 2004.

(15) Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Se libérer de la matière ? Fantasmes autour des nouvelles technologies (Are raw materials to be freed? Fantasies about new technology), INRA, coll. « Sciences en questions (Science in Question) », Paris, 2004.

(16) Neal Stephenson, The age of the diamond, Future Shores, Paris, 1996 ; Michael Crichton, Prey, Robert Laffont, Paris, 2003.


(18) Peter A. Singer, « Nanotechnology and the developing world », Public Library of Science, vol. 2, no. 5, San Francisco, 2005.

(19) This centre, created in December 2002, is located in New York. It is operated by MM. Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix, engineers and businessmen. Cf.

(20) Jürgen Altman and Mark Gubrud, « Risks from military uses of nanotechnologies », 2002.

Une industrie à l’échelle de l’atome

Dorothée Benoit-Browaeys

, archives of mach 2006

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