July 01 2017 by Jason Cook

As a nanoparticle scientist I receive many interesting questions about nanotechnology, and some seem to come straight from science fiction.

Eccentric questions like “can nanobots control human thought?” or “how to avoid natural nanoparticles?” seem laughable at first-take, but led me to ponder: how is nanotechnology perceived broadly, and where does this ‘nanophobia’ come from?

While it is true that today we see more advances in nanotechnology than ever before, nanoparticles are by no means new to our world. In fact, nanoparticles have been used since ancient times and are often naturally occurring. Indeed some heavy metals are toxic regardless of if they are in nanoparticle form (i.e. just because it is nano doesn’t mean you should ingest led or mercury) yet, a misplaced fear of nano seems to persist.  

I arrived to thinking perhaps it is not an intrinsic fear of nanoparticles, but a fear of unknown fueled by a lack of information. Would nanophobia exist if we realized everyone consumes naturally occurring nanoparticles every day?



As it turns out, mankind has been consuming nanoparticles since at least the Stone Age. Here are 2 examples of common nanoparticles we ingest without harm, or even for benefit, that most people don’t realize.

- Beer is one of the world’s oldest and most consumed beverages, potentially dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC. However, few realize that beer contains nano-sized polysaccharide particles.

- Mammalian breast milk (including humans) contains casein micelles, protein-phosphate-calcium nanoparticles. These nanoparticles are naturally produced to deliver nutrition to babies in a readily digestible form. Thus, an argument could be made that we depend on nanoparticles to reach our developmental potential at a young age.



Nanophobes, it appears, may not completely understand the natural role of nanoparticles in our environment, and are quick to over embellish the technological capabilities of synthetic nanoparticles used for science. Despite sensationalized headlines and imaginative sci-fi narratives, the truth is nanoparticle technology is still in an early stage of practical feasibility for biomedical applications. Certainly, nothing exists close to nanobots capable of hijacking the central nervous system.

As technology progresses it will be the responsibility of scientists and engineers to design new products free of malicious intent, and extensively test safety. However, we are still a long way, if ever, from harnessing nanotechnology to intelligently control biological systems.  

The gap between a feasibility study and a working nanoparticle prototype is exceedingly large. For example, a nanocar was developed by Rice University in 2005, but requires a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to move. A STM is a huge and immensely powerful instrument, and using a STM for nanocar locomotion is like using an engine the size of Jupiter to propel a Toyota Prius. After 12 years of development, we still do not have a nanocar that can propel itself.



In conclusion, I believe that nanotechnology has little cause to raise alarm in our daily lives and perhaps only deserves more honest consideration. Further, given our current ability to harness technologies and the current rate of progress, if there was fear to be had we are likely centuries away from being in danger from a takeover of the nanomachines.


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