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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK
Nanotech promise for global poor
Carbon nanotubes (Image: SPL)
Carbon nanotubes are being used in new water filtration techniques
Nanotechnology's biggest impact on millions in the developing world could be in better energy production and storage methods, according to a report.

A panel of 63 specialists worldwide was asked by the Canadian Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB) to identify the most promising areas of nanotech.

The panel said nanosciences could also significantly improve agriculture.

The nanotech impact study is reported in PLoS Medicine, the US-based Public Library of Science journal.

It is the first to rank nanotechnologies and nanoscience's potential influence relative to development, according to the authors.

"Economic development and energy consumption are inextricably linked," said Dr Peter Singer, director of the University of Toronto's JCB, a medical ethics think tank.

1) Energy storage, production and conversion
2) Agricultural productivity enhancement
3) Water treatment and remediation
4) Disease diagnosis and screening
5) Drug delivery systems
6) Food processing and storage
7) Air pollution and remediation
8) Construction
9) Health monitoring
10) Vector and pest detection and control
The authors also recommend an initiative - called Addressing Global Challenges Using Nanotechnology - should be launched to encourage the development of nanotechnologies targeted at developing nations.

It could work along the lines of the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative started last year by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of atoms and molecules at the "nanoscale". One nanometre is about a million times smaller than the diameter of a pinhead. A human hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide.

At the nanoscale, materials can be "tuned" to display unusual properties that could be exploited to build faster, lighter, stronger and more efficient devices and systems, as well as new classes of materials.

"If nanotechnology can help developing countries to move towards energy self-sufficiency, then the benefits of economic growth will become that much more accessible," said Dr Singer.

It also links in nanotechnologies' impacts to the United Nations' eight Millennium Development Goals.

These aim to get UN member nations to tackle some of the most serious problems facing developing countries, by 2015.

'Enormous potential'

"Most waves of technology can increase the gap between rich and poor but the harnessing of nanotechnology represents a chance to close these gaps," said Dr Singer.

"The targeted application of nanotechnology has enormous potential to bring about major improvements in the living standards of people in the developing world."

How nanotechnology is building the future from the bottom up

"Science and technology alone are not going to magically solve all the problems of developing countries, but they are critical components of development," he added.

New nano-structured materials are being used to build the next generation of solar cells and hydrogen fuel cells.

Nanotechnologies are also being used to develop ways of storing hydrogen, which has been a problem.

Suitable hydrogen storage systems would mean cleaner, alternative energy could be delivered to countries still reliant on non-renewable fossil fuels.

Sensors and coatings

Nanotechnology applications are also being developed to improve soil fertility and crop production.

Nano-sensors could also monitor crop and animal health, and magnetic nano-particles could remove soil contaminants.

"Lab on a chip" technology also could have significant impacts on developing nations.

Soon, health workers should be able to test a drop of blood on a coin-sized piece of plastic.

A full diagnostic examination could be returned within minutes, using developments in nanotech.

It would negate the need for time-consuming and costly separate tests and analyses for infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/Aids.

Water treatment is ranked third by the panel. "One-sixth of the world's population lacks access to safe water supplies," said study leader Dr Salamanca-Buentello.

"More than one-third of the population of rural areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has no clean water, and two million children die each year from water-related diseases."

Nano-membranes and nano-clays are inexpensive, portable and easily cleaned systems that purify, detoxify and desalinate water more efficiently than conventional bacterial and viral filters.

Researchers also have developed a method of large-scale production of carbon nanotube filters for water quality improvement.

Many developing countries have launched nanotechnology initiatives to aid the development of the science, including India, South Africa, Mexico, Thailand, Philippines, Chile, and Argentina.

After the US and Japan, China holds the most nanotech patent applications.

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