In this section you will learn:


how to look at the social and ethical issues of nanotechnology,


examples to illustrate the impact of nanotechnology to our society,


why all technologies have their good and bad sides.


When you watch the television, you may have noticed that many products now are labeled with "nano". These products include "nano" cosmetic products, "nano" clothes and "nano" water, etc. Although nanoscience has advanced our technology by making better products, it also impacts our world by raising many social and environmental concerns. In fact, some ethical, environmental, heath and safety issues arise from the development of nanotechnology have come to surface because some negative effects of nanotechnology might have been overlooked. For example, are there any long term harmful effects to our body after direct contact with these "nano" materials? Are nano materials safe to our ecology? Is it ethical to use DNA engineering to clone human beings? All these questions should be addressed with cautions and suitable actions must be taken before it is too late. In this section, we attempt to create an open platform for students to discuss the social and ethical issues in nanotechnology. Some examples of the goodness and badness of nanoparticles will be given in the following discussion.


First of all, we shall take a look of some good and bad examples on using nanoparticles. Nanoparticles are very small particles with all three dimensions less than 100 nm and one dimension between 1 - 10 nm (Fig. 2). Nanoparticles are sometimes called nanopowders or nanocrystals. However, some nanoparticles are not new to us. Carbon nanoparticles are usually produced in burning charcoals and vehicle exhaust. Currently, many materials ranging from metal to insulator can be made in the form of nanoparticles. Some of these materials have even been used commercially. For example, some new cosmetic products contain aluminum oxide nanoparticles which help to clean up dirt on our skin. Here are some potential applications of nanoparticles.



Although it sounds like science fiction, nanomedicine is expected to eliminate common diseases and virtually all medical pain and suffering by implementing nanotechnology to improve our current medical practices. It is expected that nanotechnology can make better drugs by improving our methods of chemical synthesis. Future drugs will contain nanoparticles that can be delivered into the human body faster, easier, and to the precise locations in the body. In addition, the nanoparticles can carry out different functions and kill different diseases at the same time. Finally, these particles can stay in our body for a long time so that we are no longer vulnerable to the same infection.


Nano paint

This is a rather mature technology that we have been seeing and using almost daily. A thin layer of nano paint containing nanoparticles can possess anti-bacterial and detoxicating abilities for killing microorganisms almost instantly. In addition, it also carries de-odorizing effect that can keep the nearby environment fresh. The nano paint has already demonstrated its usefulness during the SARS period where the public areas were kept clean.


Nano weapon

Almost any technology can be used to develop weapons. Since nanoparticles are very small and can carry different chemical functions, they can be used for making bio-weapons. With their small size, they can easily penetrate into our body, release toxic substances and kill us almost instantly. In addition, because of their lightweight and small size, they can be spread in public area at exceedingly fast speed without being detected. Even worse, lethal diseases can also be attached on nanoparticles to increase their destructiveness. As a result, nanoparticles can be used as biological or chemical weapons to kill or seriously impede on an individual as well as the entire city.

Therefore, as is the case of many new technologies, nanoparticles can be angelic or evil depending on how we use the technology. It can have potential threats to our society. In addition, the long-term effects of exposing us to these nanoparticles are not really known and cautions should be taken when working with them. The following example is extracted from The Economist.

The case study section will help you understand more about the impacts of nanotechnology on our health and the society.

Lotus effect
Carbon nanostructures
Euler's formula
Social issues