Throughout history, new technology has brought a sense of wonderment and fear to those unfamiliar with it. In post-Civil War America, the steam-powered engine brought the possibility of speedier travel, but also the fear of cultural pollution brought about by this ease of movement. Currently, technology changes so rapidly that it often goes unnoticed -- incremental improvements to products we already own don't alert the deep-rooted fear of the unknown that we all share. But with a the practical application of a once-theoretical nanotechnology rapidly becoming reality, those fears are once more rearing their ugly head. But, are they warranted?
Dr. Staninger welcomes back to the program Dr. Zhong Lin (ZL) Wang, head of a leading group in nanoscience and nanotechnology at the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Michael Edward, who continues to be involved in the research into the health and toxicity problems following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, to discuss the practical applications of nanotechnology remediation and cleanup of toxic substances in the environment.
After the April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform, nearly five million gallons of crude oil flowed unabated into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, affecting the coastal waters and beaches of Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Additionally, the tourism and fishing industries of these areas were negatively affected, and the wildlife and ecosystems decimated. Through current methods, the oil was deemed too dispersed throughout the waters of the Gulf to clean up, and the area will forever be polluted with this oil. However, there is current research into the practical application of nanotechnology to be used as a method of cleanup.
Using similar, yet inverted, application of nanotech as is currently used on stain-resistant fabrics, highly porous materials could be combined with a practical device similar to a bedsheet to be placed in a polluted area such as the Gulf and absorb oil molecules, making cleanup much more fast and effective. While a technology such as this is still years away from application, once it is cheap and abundant enough, this could make a disaster such as an oil spill much more manageable.
When considering other disasters -- such as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- nanotech could play an important role in early detection of radiation and mold, as they offer the potential of highly sensitive and highly remote sensors.
As with any new technology, there is always risk of side-effects and a fear of misuse. However, with proper education and controlled implementation, in years to come, nanotechnology may be as common as a television or as antiquated as a steam-powered locomotive.