Nanotechnology: The social, economic and industrial effects

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In the scientific world, some see it as a major change whilst others view it as natural progress; however, one thing is certain, the emergence of the nanoworld is sparking a new technological revolution whose effects will greatly influence society in the same way as the arrival of digital technology has changed our way of life.

Nanotechnology as an economic factor

The world nanotechnology market, while still in its infancy in 2001, is now estimated to be worth €40 billion. Today, the commitment of huge budgets in research and development in accelerating innovation means that this figure will mushroom, indeed a market with an annual turnover of several billion dollars will develop between now and 2010. The goods and services generated by this exponential increase could even represent up to $1000 billion each year between 2010 and 2015, according to the American National Science Foundation forecasts.

Notably, large-scale investment in raw materials such as metals and ceramics will decline thanks to the development of new nanomaterials as well as a new “bottom-up” approach to production which could reduce waste levels. Another aspect is the example of energy saving through the use of fibre optics. A reduction of up to 50% in energy consumption for public lighting is anticipated in the next few years. High-output lighting will be twenty times more efficient than bulbs currently in use which emit a mere 3 to 4% of their energy as light (the rest becomes wasted heat energy). A record of 28% light emission has already been set by an electroluminescent diode developed at the Laboratoire de Physique de la Matière Condensée in Palaiseau near Paris. Their target is to achieve 70% light emission.

On this frantic economic path, large-scale preliminary investment is needed. If the price of an electronic component falls, the investment needed for its production will only continue to rise. The pattern of technological invention created by the miniaturisation of components and their make-up means that the cost of carrying out procedures doubles every three years. This represents a global annual figure of between $5 billion and $6 billion. In addition to this looms the dark cloud of a technological dead-end, which would require even larger investment. Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of transistors that can be place on an integrated circuit par will double every eighteen months, enhancing electronic performance, could reach its limit between now and 2010.

The soon to come industrial boom

This revolution in the size of components and the make-up of materials will have an impact in the most diverse areas of manufacture, in which current production is at a micrometric level of precision: electronics, aeronautics, defence, the environment or raw material production for example. Mechanical, electronic, thermal and magnetic patents, as well as patents for new catalysts are at stake.

Among other major industrial advances is the improvement in catalysts. This chemical reaction accelerates production of materials without changing them. Its performance will rapidly evolve. Nanopowders are replacing current, heavy and rare metal powders such as platinum or palladium. Because of their greater surface area, they are more efficient and use less material. Moreover, at the nano level, materials such as gold, which are inert at the macroscopic level, become highly reactive.

These nanoparticles could free the industry from the demands of suppliers of rare and expensive materials. Metals, polymers and ceramics will be used less and less frequently, and this goes for aluminium and plastic used in everyday objects. Notably, the car industry is being targeted. New catalysts will improve the filtration of emissions by trapping a larger number of unwanted molecules such as hydrocarbon, nitrogen oxide or carbon, on a surface of mixed atoms.

Nanoscience in retail production

The production of transistors up to 500 times smaller than those in current commercial use is anticipated thanks notably to a system of silicon engraving on chips smaller than 10nm, as opposed to currently used chips which are 65nm in size. Other integrated circuit architectures are currently being developed, using new plastic bases rather than silicon (what we are talking about is soft engraving). Eventually microelectronics will be replaced by fibre optics: more quick than electric connections, laser transmissions will cut energy waste.

Appropriate application

The development of the nanoworld has a large impact on the relationship between society and technology as its application is seen in everyday life. “Nano” objects may certainly be invisible to the naked eye, but are placed between the inert and the living. At times, the link between machine and user appears to have changed.

Certain nanomaterials and objects are already here. The leisure industry is taking advantage of the first advances in carbon nanotubes to make lighter tennis rackets, golf clubs and other sports equipment. As for the cosmetics industry, the use of nanoparticles of titanium or zinc oxide in sun creams to filter out UV rays is already common. This is saying nothing of the use of nanochips in the diagnosis of diabetes. The microelectronics industry is not being left behind, as we see with use of nanolasers in DVD reading, transducers, batteries, screens, etc.

In electronics, information storage capacity as well as independent energy and communication will intensify the link between man and the environment around him. This will be through the use of transducers and other interlinked units or low energy-using mobile equipment (free-roaming energy). New telephones and flat screens are in development, made up of nanoelectrodes which are stimulated by a matrix of electron canons made of carbon nanotubes. However, the road towards the creation of the quantum computer, which could carry out millions of operations using the principle of quantum superposition, is still very long. As for nanometric surveillance systems, they should enable identification and location, in other words, product traceability, as well as secure payment methods and on-line information transfer.

In health, the use of biocompatible nanomaterials in prostheses, cochlear implants and heart valves may soon be seen. Nanospheres up to 70 times smaller than a red blood cell could even be used to deliver medication to the heart of the targeted organ. This could put a stop to side-effects in other parts of the body, notably in the treatment of AIDS, hepatitis or certain cancers. Diagnostic laboratories the size of a microchip are also in development, and could produce medical test results more cheaply, quickly and precise than those currently obtained using blood tests.

Les nanotechnologies : impact économique, industriel et sociétal

Sagascience. CNRS

October 2007

From the CNRS web site Sagascience Nanotechnologies and health,



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