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Nanotechnology’s role in national security

Nanotech Takes on Homeland Terror is the title of a piece by Josh Wolfe and Dan van den Bergh over at Forbes.com. It describes current and near-term applications for nanotech in detecting biowarfare agents and in protecting soldiers:

The DOD believed in nano long before the term was mainstream…Current detection tools using nanotechnology allow high-speed molecular detection of pathogens through analysis of their DNA in a matter of a few minutes where classical detection tools using regular PCR (polymerase chain reaction) would take over six hours. PCR is a DNA-amplification process that is needed in order to have enough genetic material for detection. Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) uses nanoscaled fluorescent probes that allow the tracking of the progress of the amplification from the start.

Specific companies doing defense-related nanotech work are described including Cepheid, Northrup Grumman, Combimatrix, Nanosys, and one of our favorites, Nanomix, which makes “nanosensors that can detect amounts of gas with just a few molecules present with a response time of 500 milliseconds”.

Not covered in the article are longer-term military applications of nanotechnology, which unfortunately could include offensive uses. But we have some time before this issue will arise, as explained in Unbounding the Future: “So long as nanotechnology is technologically more challenging than the simple chemistry of nerve gas, nanoterrorism should not be a primary concern.” —Christine

3 Responses to “Nanotechnology’s role in national security”

  1. Eric Tulloch Says:

    Regarding your quote from Unbounding the Future: “So long as nanotechnology is technologically more challenging than the simple chemistry of nerve gas, nanoterrorism should not be a primary concern.”

    Can we expect nanotechnology to remain more challenging than nerve-gas chemistry? If we think of software such as NanoEngineer-1, which even now is accessible/manipulable by highschool students, can we not expect such engineering tools to become even simpler by the time we have the ability to merge such software with a self-contained “nanofactory”? To draw a comparison with computers: punchcard computing, although relatively simple in concept, was rather complex and tedious in practice. Modern computing, on the other hand, is extraordinarily complex in concept and function, yet is incredibly simple to use (in certain aspects, granted). Considering technology’s general trend to make ever-increasingly complex tools ever simpler, how can we expect nanotechnology to be any different?

  2. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Eric, thanks for writing. You ask “Can we expect nanotechnology to remain more challenging than nerve-gas chemistry?” I would say no, not in the long term. If you go to the quite in Unbounding, the next section discusses that phase. It’s a bit out of date, but the basic point is made that eventually we’ll need to address this issue of nanoterrorism. Thanks again! —Christine

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