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Nanotechnology is a diverse field including any activities at the level of atoms and molecules (or more specifically between 1 and 100nanometers) that could have applications in the real world. In recognition of this diversity many people prefer to talk of nanotechnologies than of nanotechnology.

Author / translator Andrea Bandelli

What is nanotechnology? Nanotechnology is a diverse field including any activities at the level of atoms and molecules (or more specifically between 1 and 100nanometers) that could have applications in the real world. In recognition of this diversity many people prefer to talk of nanotechnologies than of nanotechnology. A common feature that many nanotechnologies exploit is the special properties that materials display at this scale. For example by dividing a certain volume of material into nanoscale particles you radically increase the surface area. This makes the material more reactive. That is why icing sugar dissolves more quickly than granulated sugar. Also the size of nano-scale particles means they may be able to enter body cells or pass straight through skin. Just like any new technology (e.g. steam, electricity) all these special properties may be very useful or harmful depending on the situation.

Created 25 December 2009
Last edited 27 June 2018
Topics Politics, Science, Technology
Original Dutch

Policy positions

Policy position 1

Rapid nanotechnology expansion, minimum regulation Promote rapid expansion of nanotechnologies, with the minimum of regulation, to ensure its benefits are realised as quickly as possible.

Policy position 2

Proceed with nanoscience but regulate Allow scientific research in nanotechnologies to proceed, setting new regulations alongside the potential developments which emerge.

Policy position 3

Regulated nanoscience with public dialogue As position 2. but opening public dialogue now on the directions of research and applications.

Policy position 4

No nanoscience unless specifically and publicly agreed Allow only the research and applications whose specific goals have been through an ongoing, widespread national public debate and dialogue.

Story cards


I am a transhumanist. I anticipate a convergence of genetic, stem cell, brain, cybernetic and nanotechnology research which will open up permanent human genetic changes and much else. These would not only eliminate genetic diseases but also enable enhancements. We could expand our intelligence, extend our sensory capacities, increase endurance, and overcome ageing. I scorn our current religious and ethical short-sightedness. We should grasp our human destiny in our own hands. Ethical regulation must not deny us that destiny.

Zed Omega

I’m an Anglican priest. I believe that a human life is a sacred life. I welcome the medical potential of nanotechnology, but I am disturbed by reports that it could be used to enhance human abilities or graft computer chips in the brain. I think scientists are tampering with our humanity or pandering to the illusions of the rich. Our real human problems are our moral and spiritual failings, which technology is powerless to change.

William Johnson

I’ve been lucky enough to get a job at the new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute for Technology in the USA). The sort of thing we’re after is creating a combat uniform with built-in strength – to help a soldier lift heavy objects or to stiffen around a bleeding wound. I know that some people are our worried about some of what we’re doing, using nanosensors to improve surveillance, for example. But we have to do this for national security – someone will beat us to it if we don’t move fast.

Joel Reddy

I did an engineering PhD at Harvard, but I’m now back in India, in Hyderabad, setting up my own nanotechnology company. I want to be in on the start of the next industrial revolution and make sure its going to happen in India and China, not just the US and Japan. I’ve had a lot of interest from venture capitalists because they can see that we have very bright people on much lower salaries than in the US. It also helps that there is so much manufacturing here, so it will be easier to apply the research we do.

S B Patel

I’m a physicist. I work at a nanotechnology research institute, exploring the potential for tiny nanoparticles to clean up environmental pollution, converting harmful substances into benign ones. I was attracted to this job because I am very concerned about the environment. But some early results suggest these particles might sometimes have damaging effects on other species, and possibly humans. The risk is very low, but no one knows how low. Do the undoubted benefits outweigh the risk? Do I stay or do I go?

Claire Green

I'm a Medical Doctor. A patient came to me with a cough. I asked him for a blood sample to do a genetic test to find which antibiotic best fitted his genetic profile. I explained that with Nanotechnology I could profile his genes in a minute. The print-out shows the best drug to prescribe for the cough. However, his genetic profile showed a high risk of developing an disorder. This man only came about his cough, should I tell him? Does he want to know?

Fred Smith

I am managing director of InsulinNano plc, which makes tiny needles for implanting in the skin, to deliver insulin into the blood automatically for diabetics. It was set up with government venture capital to help nano-medical companies get products to market. Once proven, there is a big demand. But the clinical safety trials are delayed, and funds are running low. The military are interested in developing our needles to inject soldiers on the battlefield with biological weapon antidotes. Should I seize this lifeline for our cash flow, or would it tarnish the company’s medical aims?

Jane Bold

I have refined a way to attach a drug to nano-sized gold particles that could travel through the blood, seek and destroy diseased cells but leave healthy cells untouched. A group of activists disrupted my public lecture, shouting, "How do you know you won’t hit the wrong cells? Those gold particles might cause cancer, too." "Nonsense!" I replied, "We have done detailed tests on animals and saw no adverse effects." "But you don’t know in humans," they retorted. "No", was my answer, "but no form of progress is without risk."

Sir Richard Macdonald


Human enhancement

Is it acceptable to use processes developed for medical treatment to enhance the human body, such as improving people’s memory or slowing down the ageing process?

The impact of nanotechnologies

Some people think they will affect our lives as much as electricity or plastic, but no one knows how much of today’s nanoscience will actually be useful in the future.

History of technologies having unanticipated consequences

Examples include, increasing drug resistance of viruses and bacteria, persistence of chemicals in the environment, nuclear accidents, oil spills and global warming. The effects of nanotechnology will be just as unpredictable.

Human rights and discrimination

The 'unimproved', those not enhanced, could be discriminated against.

Public engagement

How much should the public be involved in setting nanotechnology research agendas? And how?

Fairness and equity

The key equity issue is how we can use nanotechnology to help development, to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor worlds.

Nanoparticles inside organisms?

There are major uncertainties about what will happen if nanoparticles get inside organisms. One concern is that they will affect the way proteins work.

Is the health risk overstated?

Nanoparticles are not new. We inhale them from the exhaust of diesel engines, cigarette smoke, hairspray, burning candles and toast.

Lack of information

There is virtually no information available about the effect of nanoparticles on species other than humans or about how they behave in the air, water or soil.

Too much regulation hinders progress

For innovation to flourish the pursuit of knowledge can not be constrained by regulation.

Can technology be neutral?

Although some argue that nanotechnology is ethically neutral, and its impact depends on how it is used, many say that technology reflects the values of its inventors, funders and society.

Who owns the science?

Is there a difference between research funded by industry and that funded by the state? Should different regulations apply? Is it OK for commercial research to be kept 'secret'?

The developed/ developing world divide in money and health

Could nanotechnology widen the poverty gap?
Might strict regulations in the west cause manufacturers to move to poorer countries, forcing people there to deal with hazards that are prohibited here?

Two basic questions to ask with new technologies:

• Who controls their use?
• Who benefits from their use?

The ageing process

Should we be content to live a 'normal' life span, or should we try to stop the ageing process?

Why we need to research impacts

There is a danger of derailing nanotechnology if serious study of its ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social implications does not reach the speed of progress in the science.

Regulation versus public engagement

"Good regulation is more important than any amount of public engagement." Jonathon Porritt, UK environmentalist.

When should public dialogue take place?

The report of the UK Royal Society, an independent scientific body, says it should occur “before critical decisions about the technology become irreversible or ‘locked in’”. This tends to happen when companies start producing commercial products.

Is public engagement any use?

It is next to impossible to slow down or control some areas of science in one country when the world is so interconnected.

Regulation and the rate of change

Can we realistically develop a regulatory process to govern such a diverse and rapidly developing field as nanotechnologies?

Existing regulation

This may be enough to cover mundane applications in countries that have strong legislation in areas such as: health and safety at work, pharmaceuticals (drugs) and the environment.

Human rights and privacy

Governments would have “unlimited surveillance capacity”, with the possibility of invisible monitoring and tracking devices.

The sceptic’s view

The 21st-century technologies – genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics – are so powerful that they can create whole new types of accidents and abuses. For the first time, these are within the reach of individuals and small groups.

Chips in electrical goods

These would allow the shop and manufacturer to trace who has bought them and where they are. Is this more a benefit, e.g. to crime prevention, or a drawback, e.g. to privacy?

What is special about things on a nano scale?

Lots! At this scale materials that we are familiar with can show new electrical, chemical and magnetic properties. We can manipulate individual atoms or even make tiny motors.

What happens at the nano scale? 1

Nanoparticles are tiny pieces of a material. As the particles become smaller their surface area becomes relatively greater. This is why icing sugar dissolves more quickly than granulated sugar.

What happens at the nano scale? 2

Nano-scale particles may be able to enter body cells or pass straight through the skin. Like any new technology (e.g. electricity) these properties could be either very useful or harmful.

What happens at the nano scale? 3

Things behave in unusual ways. For example :
• Gold, normally unreactive, becomes more reactive and melts at a lower temperature.
• Copper stops becoming a good conductor of electricity.

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is an umbrella term used to describe any technology that deals with objects measuring from 1 to 100 nanometres, in at least one of their dimensions.

Nanoparticles can occur naturally

Gold and silver nanoparticles are observed in sedimentary rocks. Volcanic eruption produces nanoparticles, and some salt compounds in the sea contain nanoparticles.

Carbon nanotubes 1

A nanotube is like a tiny sheet of carbon rolled into a cylinder. It has a diameter of a few nanometers, about 10,000 times thinner than a human hair.

Recommendations of the UK Royal Society, 2004

"Factories and research laboratories should treat manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes as if they were hazardous and seek to reduce or remove them from waste streams."


Nanoparticles and nanotubes have different properties to the same chemical in larger form. Being so tiny, these particles may be able to penetrate cells and may sometimes be more toxic.

Health risks

The UK Royal Society, an independent scientific body, recommended that people avoid exposure to airborne nanotubes until more research has been done.

The ‘grey goo’ scenario

A scientist, Eric Drexler, suggested that nano machines might self-replicate and consume all the material on Earth. This is no longer thought feasible and the author has retracted his claims.

Carbon nanotubes 2

They exhibit unusual strength (100 times stronger and 6 times lighter than steel) and electrical properties. This is potentially useful for drug delivery, as well as electrical and mechanical applications.

Who is investing in nanotechnologies?

As of 2010, the USA and Japan are investing the most money. The EU
plus European countries will be spending more than 4 billion euros
over the next four years. Larger developing countries are also big

Current applications 1

Silver nanoparticles have been used in socks to reduce smell. The anti-bacterial effect of silver is enhanced by the greater surface area at the nanoscale.

Current applications 2

The US Navy has started putting nanoscale ceramic coatings on its ships. This stops sea creatures from fouling metal components and saves about a million dollars a year for each ship.

Possible applications 1

Magnetic nanoparticles can guide and position drugs at the site of disease. Nanotubes can be filled with drugs and delivery can be controlled from outside the body.

Possible applications 2

Minute particles of gold attached to DNA fragments can be used to detect disease-causing organisms, such as viruses or bacteria, in the blood.

Possible applications 3

Vaccines could be encapsulated in nanomaterials so that they would no longer need to be refrigerated. What will happen when these break down we don’t know, but is currently being studied.

Possible applications 4

Iron nanoparticles can be made to bind to cancerous tissue. They can then be heated up using magnetic fields and used to destroy the cancerous cells.

Possible applications 5

Currently, plastic hip replacements last around ten years. With a ceramic coating they could last for 40 years. This is because ceramics become much more durable at the nanoscale.

Possible applications 6

New lighting devices using carbon nanotubes could cut the electrical power used for illumination by up to half.

Possible applications 7

New materials could bring down the cost of solar cells. This could make the widespread production of electricity from solar cells a viable economic prospect.

Possible applications 8

Specialised nanoparticles could be used to detoxify polluted water, land or even air. We can now also create membranes with pores small enough to filter virus particles out of water.

Possible applications 9

Light emitting nanomaterials could be used to make paper thin TV screens that could be rolled up like a newspaper. They might only need a very low electric charge.

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