Cake takes center stage at nanotechnology talk                   by Aarti Kapoor

There is a Spanish proverb that says “the belly rules the mind”. So for all you food lovers out there, if you’re having trouble digesting the complex science behind the nanotechnology phenomenon, Dr. Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, seems to have the answer. 

In a rather entertaining talk (see video in his blog post) given recently at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. as part of NanoDays 2010, Maynard drew several interesting comparisons between (believe it or not), baking a cake and nanotechnology. And yes, you read that right — the cake really did take center stage that afternoon. 

Using the raw ingredients used to bake a cake (eggs, flour, butter, sugar, milk and vanilla extract), Maynard carefully took his audience through the process of baking a cake from start to finish. 

While cracking eggs open and creaming butter and sugar, Maynard managed to multi-task and serve up a healthy fare of nanotechnology topics, including explaining the intricate nature of nano-materials, and some of the pressing issues in this new and emerging technology that society needs to think about.

A physicist by training, Maynard described in his talk-cum-cooking demonstration some very interesting developments that took place during the 1990’s (the nascent days of nanotechnology). Among them:

1. That certain parts of the research community got very interested in some very unusual and exciting things that were happening at the nanoscale. By using atoms and molecules, and putting them together in very precise ways, scientists were beginning to realize that they could engineer a very wide range of materials and products.

2. At the same time, there were some interesting studies taking place where it was claimed that very small things can cause harm to people and to the environment in unexpected ways. For instance, titanium dioxide is a very common material around the world and chemically, it is a very inert material. However, researchers discovered that if you took this very same material and formed it into very small particles, something very unusual happened. The materials that they usually thought safe behaved in a queer manner at the nano-scale, indicating they may not be as safe as it was previously thought. “That got a few sparks flying in people’s minds,” Maynard said.

Questions on safety and ethics

Something was very clear as the science in this area began to develop, Maynard explained. There was an incredible opportunity for scientists to use nanotechnology to engineer better products, including batteries, cosmetics and baseball bats. However, at the same time, it was also clear that as people were developing this new technology and new products, new questions of safety were also arising. How on earth were we going to ensure that the materials were going to be safe and used safely? This became a fairly significant question, Maynard said.

The new technology also raised certain questions about ethics. With a brand new set of technology, who decides how it is going to be used, who gets the benefits from that technology and who suffers the consequences? 

Wise decisions and a cooking analogy

One thing that is clear is that nanotechnology is an incredibly complex area, and wise decisions have to be made. As Maynard aptly noted in his talk: “This is an area where there are no black and whites, there are no simple questions, there are no simple answers”. 

At this point, Maynard drew a cooking analogy.

“You think about what we do when we cook something. We take certain ingredients, and we put them together in imaginative ways, … something incredible happens,” he said.

“So what comes out at that other end has got all that taste, the texture and nutritious value that we so value in food and yet it is completely different from the ingredients that go in,” he explained. 

And then, to drive home the point, Maynard said: “Cooking is an incredibly complex process and yet we do it every single day and we embrace it every single day. So here’s something that we actually use as an analogy on how we deal with complex things and maybe, just maybe, we can use some of this analogy to say something intelligent about nanotechnology.” 

He pointed out that the only real difference between cooking and nanotechnology is that in cooking you can see the ingredients, but in nanotechnology, you cannot see the ingredients as they are very small. 

Nanotechnology is a process

Maynard explained that cooking is a process, and exactly the same occurs with nanotechnology. “Actually, nanotechnology isn’t so much a technology, it’s a process, it’s a way of taking things that we are familiar with, doing something clever with them, and ending up with something that maybe we are not that familiar with.”

Nanotechnology adds value

Maynard noted that nanotechnology effectively adds values to materials. For instance, using the example of carbon, which does not have much value on its own, but if created into carbon nanotubes and used in a baseball bat, there is more value – the baseball bat is lighter and stronger.

Different stages

Maynard presented yet another similarity. Just like cooking, in nanotechnology, one deals with different substances at different stages. To ensure that the materials are used as safely as possible, one needs to think about the different stages of the process and which part of the process one is in. 

Using the analogy of cooking (or baking), Maynard said that it was necessary to look at how safe or how harmful the ingredients actually are. 

“The fact is that you can … put them (certain ingredients) into a cooking process which start off as harmful, … ends up relatively safe. Now that means that you cannot judge the end product by the stuff that goes into them.” 

“Likewise you can also imagine a case where you start off with something that is fairly safe but by the process of engineering … it ends up into something which isn’t so safe.”

Thinking critically

Maynard concluded that just as we need to think critically about the ingredients that go into our cooking, the same applies to nanotechnology. 

“We’ve got to look at the different stages to think about how the process transforms those ingredients,” he said.

The key to nanotechnology, he said, is that whatever that comes out of this process, if used wisely, it can be used for great good. However, if used unwisely, it can potentially cause harm.

“The real trick here is not asking whether it is safe, whether it isn’t safe, but asking what are the rules to ensure the safest possible use. Exactly the same for cooking as it is for nanotechnology,” Maynard said.

Now that is some food for thought. 

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