Written by John Toon
Nanoscience and nanotechnology promise clever new ways to target cancer cells, novel materials with amazing properties, smaller and more powerful computers, new approaches for cleaning up the environment and a host of other advances.\
But could the unique properties of nanometer-scale materials be used by rogue nations or organizations to create a global security threat? Margaret E. Kosalexplores that possibility – and potential countermeasures – in her new book, Nanotechnology for Chemical and Biological Defense, published by Springer Science Academic Publishers.
An assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech, Kosal argues that the unique concerns raised by nanotechnology must be part of the threat scenarios considered by the U.S. defense and homeland security communities. Strategies to address the threats could include developing a better understanding of their real potential and fostering improved international cooperation.
“We are moving away from many of the limiting conventional assumptions about warfare to incorporate insurgencies and asymmetrical warfare, including the potential for non-state actors and sub-state actors to appropriate technology in ways they haven’t before,” she said. “Part of the nature of nanotechnology is that it is fundamentally dual use. Much about its applications depends on the intent of the individuals pursuing it.”
Ironically, the mechanisms that make nanotechnology beneficial could also be part of its dark side.
For instance, the ability to target cancer cells by recognizing their specific genetic sequences could also potentially be used to deliver toxins to harm healthy cells. Carbon nanotubes, useful in electronics and other technology areas, could also be used to circumvent vaccines by delivering protein cargoes directly into cells. Magnetic nanoparticles developed to draw therapeutics to diseased areas of the body could also be bombarded with electromagnetic energy to create excessive heat in the brain or other organs.
Of course, such evil application of nanotechnology would require research and development capabilities beyond those of non-Hollywood terror organizations. But as the proliferation of nuclear weapons enabled by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan demonstrated, state-developed technology can sometimes find its way into the wrong hands.
“We are thinking about a rogue scientist working at some level below official channels to pursue something that could have negative impacts,” explained Kosal. “This is not something that terrorists are going to be using soon, but it is a threat we need to anticipate when looking forward 15 or 20 years.”
Kosal’s book is based on her own independent research, field work and case studies – and on concerns and scenarios developed in a January 2007 workshop she organized and chaired. The event was attended by more than 100 U.S. experts, including scientists and engineers involved in nanoscience and nanotechnology, researchers from defense laboratories, social scientists concerned about policy issues, policy-makers, members of the intelligence community, and “operators” – soldiers, sailors, Marines and others who might actually use the technologies.
The groups considered what the threats might be, what kinds of countermeasures might be needed, and what strategies should be developed to counter the threats. They considered scenarios that have been published in scientific journals, ignoring the “science fantasy” ideas that have been popularized in the general media.
“We need to start developing strategies now to be able to lessen the potential for malfeasant applications of these technologies,” said Kosal, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and served for two years as a science and technology advisor in the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense. “People have thought about this at a very high level, but what we need to do is dive more deeply into it and explore the potential nanotechnology threat in a much more analytical and systematic way.”
The work was supported in part by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Chemical and Biological Technologies Directorate.
Nanoscience and nanotechnology differ from earlier technological revolutions because they are global and interdisciplinary, and therefore cannot be readily restricted through conventional arms control methods, noted Kosal, who is a member of Georgia Tech’s Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy (CISTP). In their first decades, atomic bomb technology and even biotechnology could be limited to just a few nations and their courses set by a handful of scientists and political leaders. But nanotechnology isn’t like that.
“We can’t be sure where the nanotechnology weapons may arise,” Kosal said. “There are programs in every developed nation to pursue nanotechnology, and a lot of developing nations have them, too. The reality of the globalized world is that we can’t just pull together a hundred scientists and engineers to decide what will be the norms for this new technology.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Georgia Tech’s Research Horizons magazine.