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Home > Nanotechnology Introduction Disruptive Technology > Disruptive Technologies Part II

Second in the Disruptive Technology Series

Mark Ratner and Daniel Ratner (bios), and Nanotechnology Now talk about Disruptive Technologies.

April 14th, 2003.

Questions by Rocky Rawstern, Editor Nanotechnology Now
Answers by Mark Ratner and Daniel Ratner.

Most of the public has heard the term "disruptive technologies", but few really understand how they can effect society. Can you give a few examples of past disruptive technologies, and the changes they brought about?

History is full of examples of disruptive technologies. An early example is the steam engine, which revolutionized the world by making the maximum speed of travel and communications greater than that of a running horse. For the first time travel became a real possibility as did inexpensive shipping and the distribution of goods. Later, communications was revolutionized again by the telegraph and telephone, which began the work of making the world into a global village. Electricity and, in particular, the electric light ended the constraint of living and working by daylight and now is an essential part of almost every machine we use on a day to day basis. People have made more transistors than any other thing in the history of humanity.

To pick even more up-to-date examples, the discovery of DNA and genetics is still revolutionizing medicine and our understanding of ourselves and our composition. The development of computers and the Internet has made information available to us in an unprecedented way, streamlining the distribution of goods, the transfer of money, the operations of government, institutions, and companies, and has become the enabling force of the globalization that is happening in the world today.

For better or for worse all of these technologies totally changed the world leaving it so different that it could barely be recognized by those that came before.

While most people are aware of and regularly use computers in their home and office settings, most do not understand that the driving force behind the development of the "brain" of their computer is nanoscale technology. Can you tell us about other areas where nanoscale technologies are used today, but not recognized as such?

In our book we say that “it may be difficult for analysts to find the nano in the stew of industry, but it will be there, adding its spice to the economic whole.” That is certainly how nanotechnology has been developed to date. One big example of “stealth” nanotechnology is in magnetic data storage for computers. If you are using a computer with a multi-gigabyte hard drive (if you aren’t, upgrade already!) you are almost certainly using a technology called GMR, or Giant Magneto-Resistance, which is pure nanotechnology and already accounts for billions of dollars worth of products every year. Even that is dwarfed, as it were, by nanotechnology in the petroleum industry. Several years ago Mobil developed zeolites, which are catalysts that work through the use of nanoscale tunnels and chambers, for use in petroleum refining. This innovation saves the U.S. an estimated 400 million barrels of oil a year, or approximately $12 billion at peacetime prices. Closer to home you may also find nanotechnology in the new pair of stain-proof khakis you just bought. Development is now fast and furious, but not everything made possible by nanotechnology has a “contains nano” label on it…at least not one big enough to read.

Many outrageous claims have been seen in the press over the past couple years regarding science-fiction-like benefits coming from nanotechnology; space tethers, immortality, and downloading a human mind to name a few. Can you talk about some of the more mundane and perhaps realistic near-term benefits stemming from nanoscale science and technology, and how they may disrupt existing technologies?

One of our favorites is the application of nanotechnology-based sensors for use in medicine and homeland security. A lot of work is being done to create nanoscale sensors that can be integrated onto a lab-on-a-chip and be used to deliver a suite of diagnostic tools right in a doctor’s office. In the near future it might be possible for you to visit your doctor, get a throat culture, spend 10 minutes reading a magazine, and get a full health report on the spot. This report could screen for a particular condition such as tetanus, determine your genetic susceptibility to certain cancers, or it could even be used to get a general picture of your health and well-being. Using current technology to gather this kind of data requires days, multiple doctor’s office visit, and a lot of unpleasant and invasive collection of cultures. Worse, current technology costs hundreds or thousands of dollars to do the job -- lab-on-a-chip technology could reduce this dramatically. Nanoscale sensors also have applications for homeland security -- they could be installed in water pumping stations, airports, public buildings, mail-sorting centers and other facilities deemed to be at high risk of attack. They would provide early and ultra-accurate warnings of these attacks and even take preventive action (such as shutting water valves). They could even be incorporated into food packaging to provide a warning if the food spoils.

Another key technology to watch will be smart materials. Groups are already producing coatings and laminates with exciting properties. Non-stick, biocidal (anti-microbial) layers for bathroom fixtures, medical equipment and other uses have already been announced as have ultra-strong composites utilizing nanotubes. Self-healing materials are also reality, but few commercially efficient products have been based on them. While self-cleaning bathrooms are not in and of themselves disruptive technology (at least in the eyes of those who don’t have to clean them anyway), smart material research opens the doors to near limitless possibilities from skyscrapers that are several times taller than anything to date to NASA’s vision of a space plane that is lighter than a shuttle, near frictionless on the surface, capable of healing itself in the case of rupture, and even able to change its physical configuration as necessary. That’s a long way out still, but it’s hard to predict how quickly smart materials will evolve.

There has lately been an increase in what has been labeled as "non-scientific" and "hysterical" reporting. Groups such as ETC have raised issues regarding the perceived danger of nanotechnology, and the need to place a moratorium on all nanoscale research and production until we know for sure that no danger exists. While this discussion will undoubtedly continue, and should continue, the more important (in our view) discussion is the likely societal and technological disruptions and their consequences, which seems to be lacking. Given the potential for disruptive technologies to massively impact business and society, and coupled with the double exponential growth rate of new technologies, can you talk about how sites such as Nanotechnology Now, scientists such as yourselves, and other professionals, can get this discussion rolling?

People worry a lot about things that they don’t understand, especially when the prevailing stories are all about that dark side. Books like Prey and movies like Spiderman or Minority Report are unlikely to inspire people into thinking that nanotechnology is a good idea. I think it is our mission to make the public aware of what nanotechnology really is and the promise that it holds for society. It is equally important to share our concerns about the ethical and societal issues about nanotechnology and we tried to cover as many of these issues as possible in our book.

A moratorium on nanoscience research is not only ill advised since it would defer so many benefits, it is also impossible. Every major nation on earth is engaged in nanotechnology research and coming to consensus to slow or stop it is not realistic. Even genetic cloning, a technology with much less upside than nanotechnology, proved impossible to stifle. The science and the technology will continue to develop -- the economy needs them and society needs them. What we can do is start a public debate. We can make sure that the most basic research takes place in open institutions like university research labs rather than driving it underground. We can make nanotechnology a part of core science curriculum starting at the high-school level and we can support organizations which seek to create ethical frameworks and watch the development of the technology closely.

Information technology has been a transformative technology in our lives and the problems are much the same. The technology is now totally indispensable, but can also be abused by governments or businesses seeking to invade privacy, curtail civil liberties, and worse. As little as ten years ago relatively few people understood the issues or worried about them, but this has begun to change. As computers become more and more a part of our day-to-day lives, everyone has learned a little bit about them and organizations such as the EFF have sprung up to champion ethical issues in the industry. There have been successes, such as the repeal of the Communications Decency Act. There have also been failures. But when potentially abusive applications of the technology are suggested (such as the Total Information Awareness database) it no longer gets swept under the carpet -- it becomes a hot, controversial issue. Hopefully this is the path that nanotechnology will take. In this respect, information technology has been a much better citizen than has biotechnology, which probably does require more accountability.

The key issue here, in our opinion, is that people realize where their true concerns lie -- it isn’t with the legitimate use of new technology. That usually benefits everyone. It is with the abuse of technology that comes primarily through the violation of privacy rights and civil liberties. This is best prevented by using our votes and our wallets. By keeping research and development in the spotlight, we make it possible for people to make informed decisions about what companies, policies, and politicians are making ethical use of technology. Nanotechnology Now is part of this effort. So are we.

In terms of disrupting existing consumer products, which nanoscale technologies or nanoscale materials will impact the world the soonest? And which will do so in the next 5 years, and the next 10 years?

We already talked about sensors and materials -- those are the products most likely to have a short-term impact. With a field as rapidly evolving as nanotechnology it is almost impossible to predict what it will look like in five, let alone ten years -- it’s like predicting silicon technology before Moore’s Law. Still, we do have some favorites for the betting person.

In the next 5 years, expect to see nanotechnology dominate the electronics industry. Nanofabrication processes and molecular electronics will both be key to the effort of continuing to develop computers. Seeing a practical quantum computer within the next 10 years is certainly not off the cards either.

Nanoscale drugs, therapies, and medical products are already showing wonderful results in the laboratory. They will provide vastly improved treatments for cancers and other viruses, which have defied treatment by pre-nano medicine. But drug development is a slow process and FDA approval is a slower one. Don’t expect to see many nano-drugs for at least 5 years. You’ll hear about them sooner.

Farther out even than these is one of the holy grails of nanotechnology -- energy production. This is not just a challenge for nanotechnology, but it is one of the most urgent problems the world is facing today. Fossil fuel based energy certainly will not last forever, it is relatively expensive, and the side effects from pollution and international politics make it an unattractive option. If renewable alternatives such as solar power, geothermal power, or even nuclear fusion will ever be made practical and economic it will be done by nanotechnology. With these will come environmental remediation technologies -- the ability to clean up much of the pollution we’ve put into the water and the atmosphere. This work will require massive resources -- many times more than we are investing in nanotechnology today -- but cheap, clean, widely available energy will ease almost all the world’s problems. With any luck, we’ll see the significant first moves in this direction within the next 10 years.

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MARK RATNER, winner of the 2001 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology, is Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor in Chemistry at Northwestern University. He is widely credited as the "father of molecular-scale electronics"—thanks to his groundbreaking work with Ari Aviram that first envisioned how electronic circuit elements might be constructed from single molecules and how these circuits might behave. Ratner is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. He lectures worldwide on nanotechnology and its implications.

DANIEL RATNER, an engineer and tech entreprenteur, has founded two successful technology startup companies, serves as industry advisor to several other high-tech ventures, and was recently awarded the prestigious "30 Under 30" entrepreneurs' award by Philly Tech magazine.

Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea. November 2002 Read reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Nanotechnology is hot. But once you get past the hype, what exactly is nanotech? How does it work? What nanotech products and applications are already out there? Which technological breakthroughs are most exciting? What nanotechnologies look like sure bets; which are long shots? How does nanotech fit into computing? Into biotech? Into manufacturing and defense? And what might be the ethical implications of devices small enough to go anywhere, see anything, even hide beneath the "radar" of your immune system?

Oh, and could you answer all those questions in plain English?

Mark and Dan Ratner have done just that, in Nanotechnology: A Gentle Introduction to the Next Big Idea.

This isn’t just a journalist’s speculation. Mark Ratner, the “Father of Molecular Electronics,” is one of the world’s leading nanotech researchers, and winner of the field’s leading scientific award, the Feynman Prize.

But, unlike many treatments of nanotech, this book isn’t just about the science. It covers the business, engineering, and social implications, too. And it isn’t about just one corner of nanotech, such as nanobots. It covers the waterfront: quantum computing, biostructures, nanotubes, molecular motors, nanosensors, you name it. To really understand our tiny future, start right here.


The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) A non-profit organization, formed to advance the safe use of molecular nanotechnology. CRN was founded by Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder in December 2002. The vision of CRN is a world in which nanotechnology is widely used for productive and beneficial purposes, and where malicious uses are limited by effective administration of the technology.

Disruptive Technology: Any new technology that is significantly cheaper than current, and/or is much higher performing, and/or has greater functionality, and/or is more convenient to use. Will revolutionize worldwide markets by superseding existing technologies. "Paradigm shifting" is a well-worn connotation. Although the term may sound negative to some, it is in fact neutral. It is only negative to organizations that are unprepared for change, and fail to adapt, only to fall behind, and ultimately disappear. The results are not just evolutionary, they are revolutionary. Companies will go out of business because a new competitor emerges, just as the advent of the zipper eradicated so much of the button industry, the vacuum cleaner decimated the broom industry, and the personal computer wiped out the typewriter.

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