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Editorial comment

In 1973, a gentleman by the name of James Burke was asked to predict what life would be like in 20 years time. Forty years ago, he predicted the rise of computer technology, the increasing willingness of young people to release personal information online, and the rise of databanks full of such information.


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Burke was right, of course, though perhaps a little off with his timings. In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, he was asked to follow up with his forecast for the next 40 years. His answer was fascinating, if a little disturbing. Burke predicted that within the next 40 years there will be change in our society that would be equal in impact to all the changes experienced from Neanderthal times to the modern day. The cause of this massive transformation: nanotechnology.

According to Burke, within the next 40 years nanotechnology will reach a point where we could all own a nanofactory capable of making basically anything from a combination of air, dirt and some Acetylene gas, for added carbon. The impact on society, Burke said, would be enormous. He talked of a post-scarcity economy, in which everyone will be able to make whatever they need for basically nothing, destroying the very foundations of commerce. He questioned whether, in such a society, we would need governments as we know them? Would we need to live in cities? Would we all live a more isolated existence, having to please only ourselves?Such a society seems like something out of a science fiction novel, incomprehensible by today’s standards – and perhaps it is fiction to imagine that we could function without that innate drive to improve our circumstances. Nanotechnology could make building materials, but surely a house would still need to be built, foundations excavated, and all the multiple parts put together? Would it really be feasible to do all that alone? And what about information or literature or learning, which surely takes more than air, dirt and a little gas? We have more to trade than simply materials. Then, of course, there is also the concern that if you can make anything with your nanofactory, what is to stop people making things that are dangerous?

Nanotechnology doesn’t have to lead to a doomsday scenario, however. Currently, of all its potential uses, construction falls at number eight on the list of most significant areas of application. Nanotechnology is already being used to address the challenges faced by the cement and concrete industry, including environmental, sustainability and durability concerns. According to Nanowerk.com, ‘a remarkable improvement in the mechanical properties and durability of cementitious materials can be observed with incorporation of nanomaterials such as nano-SiO2, ZnO2, Al2O3, TiO2, carbon nanotubes, nano-clays, carbon nanofibers and other nanomaterials.’ Experiments have been ongoing for more than a decade, with an escalation in projects in the last five or six years since commercial success of nano-scale materials as cementitious ingredients has been achieved. This evolution is happening now; it is science, not science fiction.

In the article, ‘Nanotechnology in the cement industry – a patent analysis’, Nanowerk.com concludes that the commercial adaptation of nanotechnology has already begun and ‘nano-enabled cement is poised to occupy the cement industry in a big way’. That is good news if we end up with the high-rise cities that I mentioned in the April 2013 Editor’s Comment, but if life as we know it is on the brink of a nanotechnology-inspired societal apocalypse, where we have no real need to live in cities, one wonders if there’s any point...? I look forward to hearing your views!