Small World

NB: Nano-technology currently uses both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches. Can you explain what is meant by this?

JB: 'Top-down' refers to making nanoscale structures by employing machining and etching techniques – taking a chunk of material and carving it up at the nano scale - whereas 'bottom-up', or molecular nanotechnology, applies to building organic and inorganic structures atom-by-atom, or molecule-by-molecule. Components such as switches are already in common use that are the result of top down manufacture. Top down nano work is currently very expensive to do, with only a handful of manufacturing plants operating globally. A new plant for mass production of top down nano materials costs more than $10bn.

The bottom up approach is made difficult by the fact you are unable to see exactly what you are creating. You try and constrain the movement of nano-elements so that self assembly can be achieved.

NB: Government funding for nano-technology is at record levels. How do you see this trend developing?

JB: That’s a trend that will only continue as the applications increase in number. The Government has had an interest in the field for years, but nano-technology was always distributed across pigeonholes in chemistry or physics or wider disciplines. Now it has global recognition as an independent discipline. Government has realised that regulation must play a part in the future.

NB: How so?

JB: As we achieve smaller and smaller components, regulation will play a greater part. Currently, nano-technology is tied in with a lot of biological applications – the two go hand in hand – medicine can benefit from nano-technology as it works at just above and below the cellular level and nano-technology can benefit by taking its cues from established biology. In the future it’s not inconceivable, at the molecular level, to mimic DNA and directed self assembling biology in nano-technology applications for instance.

The question of regulation results from the ethical implications inherent with working on human biology. As nano-technology moves forward it will have greater influence on biology. There are many things to consider, such as the property of some nano-materials to pass through skin and other human tissue.

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