22 October 2012

Nanotechnology: A saviour or a curse?

Many scientists and companies believe nanotechnology offers revolutionary potential, in areas such as filter material to reduce the water permeability levels in reservoirs.


The laboratory located behind a multi-storey car park does not look particularly impressive from the outside but BioMers is just one of a number of companies that has put Singapore on the cutting edge of nanotechnology.

BioMers is a medical device company that specialises in biomedical applications and is responsible for the world's only completely clear orthodontic solution, meaning patients can undergo orthodontic treatment without the embarrassment of unsightly metal braces.

Researchers and students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) used nanotechnology to help the company develop a clinically proven clear orthodontic wire.

"We immediately thought that the clear polymer was perfect for dental braces. Nobody wants to have braces that look like train tracks on their teeth," says George Aliphtiras, co-founder and vice-president of business development at BioMers.

Many scientists and companies believe nanotechnology offers revolutionary potential, in areas such as filter material to reduce the water permeability levels in dykes and reservoirs. The technology could also have applications in the textile industry, rust prevention and substance transporters in medicine.

"Research activity in this area has increased over the past five years," says Professor Andy Hor, executive director at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) in Singapore and an expert in the field of nanotechnology.

However, the use of nanotechnology does not come without risks and side-effects. "Science was long of the view that the behaviour of a product can be predicted once we know its chemical nature," says Hor. "For example, salt is always salty, regardless of whether the granule is large or small. Now we know that size does in fact play a role and that materials can develop new characteristics."

The health risks involved with using the technology need to be assessed, especially in the medical field, and in the production of creams and foodstuffs. "There are a lot of things that we don't understand," says Hor.

Swung attitudes

Attitudes towards nanotechnology have swung between global salvation and nightmare over the past two decades. Nobel Prize winner Eric Drexler coined the term "grey goo" to describe a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all matter on Earth while building more of themselves. Fortunately, this potential horror scenario has long been reduced to the realms of science fiction.

Nanotechnology is now seen as having the potential to provide solutions to serious challenges in areas as varied as health, environment, climate protection, energy and sustainable agriculture.

The evaluation of the health risks involved with nano-particles has to date left many questions unanswered although Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) says that so far there is no evidence that nano-particles or nano-materials cause health problems.

Stella is another start-up nanotechnology company in Singapore, working on protective films the thickness of a molecule for the computer industry where precious metals have to be used in chips and power and data ports.

"Our protective film means that the precious metal can be applied much more thinly, saving up to 50% in material," explains company founder Yin Xi Jiang. The process takes just a couple of seconds and uses soluble chemicals that do not have an impact on the environment.

Since 2006, Singapore has rolled out the red carpet for emerging nanotechnology companies.

"We had 13 companies in this area, now it's 50," says Yi-Hsen Gian, director at the Singapore Economic Development Board. The government has increased the five-year research budget between 2011 and 2015 by almost 25 per cent to 16.1 billion Singapore dollars (13.1 billion dollars). "We offer tax incentives, development loans or shoulder a part of the business risk."

(Sapa, October 2012)

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