Avian Flu Bioterrorism Threat

The U.S. recently approved the publication of research into Avian Influenza, commonly known as bird flu, after it was blocked for four months due to concerns over its use by bioterrorists. Two research teams, located in the U.S. and the Netherlands respectively, worked on this project involving an airborne form of the virus that affected ferrets.

Though not contagious to humans, the virus is already out in the wild. Chances for the virus to mutate causing a pandemic have researchers on high alert. Head virologists have already been informed to counter such a dilemma but could have had backup from other scientists earlier had publication of the work not been delayed by both the American and the Dutch governments. The governments’ consent to publish was only given when they had assessed the risk it posed.

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U.S. on Alert in Nairobi

The U.S embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, informed the U.S. citizens there to be alert after receiving reliable information of a possible attack on prominent hotels and government buildings. There have been two such attacks in the past two years, resulting in seven dead and 83 wounded.

The threat is linked to Al-Shabaab, an organization based in southern Somalia with connections to Al-Qaeda. This is not the first time Al-Shabaab has been connected to the attacks in Nairobi. A Kenyan who caused the grenade attacks last year claimed he was associated with the organization though Al-Shabaab denied the involvement.

Kenya has not faced as many devastating attacks as Somalia likely due to the U.S. embassy’s credible information regarding the plots leading to tightened security at well-known targets and government buildings. This is very likely the reason why Kenya has been victim of only ‘soft target’ strikes while Somalia has faced many devastating attacks in high profile areas.

Cholera Evolving in Haiti

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the cholera strain in Haiti is entering its second phase as expected now in the second year of the outbreak. The change means it’s possible for Haitians to fall ill a second time as the disease adapts to those with resistance to the original bug.

Haiti has the highest number of cholera cases in the world. More than 534,000 people, five percent of the population, have been sickened by the disease, and another 7,000 have died since the virus was introduced from Nepal in October, 2010. The vaccination being introduced is still effective against the mutated form of the disease, but less than 1 percent of the population is expected to receive it in the latest campaign.

“No more immigrants—they are not welcome in the West.”

Politics of immigration are a touchy issue, but the solution is not an anti-immigrant one. Western governments are weighing whether or not they should slam the doors on migration and tighten border control. Anti-immigrant campaigns are gaining ground among European and American voters, but this policy could turn negative for the overall economic performance and demographic strength of their nations.

Global migration reached a historic peak during the 20th century. It has always been a potential economic force, and now there are 215 million first-generation migrants around the world that are a strong force in wealthy economies. Nation and industry stand to gain from the brains and hard work of newcomers.

At the political and sociological levels, however, the issue is decidedly more complicated. Unskilled migrants very often do not—or are not allowed to—assimilate with the population as they are relentlessly segregated by economic class, legal status, neighborhood, language, or religion. They often create far-reaching cultural and religious shock for their host countries. Studies also show the wages of unskilled immigrants depress the wages of unskilled locals. But they ultimately bring greater gains.

Migrants have always helped spread ideas and generate wealth more than bringing burdens with them. Many of the emerging world’s brightest minds have been educated at western universities and helped shape their home and their host countries’ politics, economies, and technology. Migration gives youth to aging countries and supplies a workforce to help stabilize the economic health of rich countries.

An anti-immigration policy for a wealthy nation with an aging population was equated to “national suicide” by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year. The diaspora of cultures can only make welcoming countries richer both culturally and economically.

A Resolve of Global Transformation

The focus of our analysis is on fundamental changes in culture, economy, society, and the ecosystems that lead to development for mankind. Given existing and foreseeable global problems, our magazine outlines the challenges with which the people of today and tomorrow will be confronted: democracy issues in Myanmar and Canada, innovative breakthroughs in nanotechnology and water treatment, economic issues of the U.S. housing crisis, and viable strategies to control deforestation.

The world is experiencing a serious financial crisis that morphed into a recession, but the recession, far from being a repeat of the Great Depression, is not even the worst recession the world has seen since World War II. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we saw recession-based, soaring energy prices. This time it is with housing prices.

Recessions are cyclic events. They happen every few years and help regulate the economic system. Considering the U.S housing crisis, it is important to remember the market bubble was made possible in part by high savings rates in China.

The global economy is interlinked. Private financiers essentially borrowed savings from Chinese residents and then loaned the funds to Americans wanting to purchase homes. Other financial institutions then bundled the mortgages and sold them to people and organizations scattered across the globe. In this era of globalization, complex, economic interdependence profoundly influences our lives.

To top it all, in the field of nuclear security, Iran edges closer to acquiring a nuclear bomb and its missiles extend an ever darker diplomatic shadow over the Middle East and Europe. It could diminish American influence in the Gulf and Middle East by increasing the pace and scope of terrorist activities and dramatically raising the price of oil. There is also concern about the safety of nuclear material in countries like the former Soviet states, Pakistan, North Korea, and to some extent India.

We may have to traverse a rough road ahead and ought to prepare with caution.

Probir Kumar Sarkar

The Technology that Changes Everything

It’s not a question of ‘if’ nanotechnology will shake the world, but ‘by how much’.

Held aloft by an electric field, an infinitesimally-sized piece of gold begins to vibrate. The gold particle is so tiny that it is swaying in the sound given off by nearby bacteria. Researchers at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilians University unveiled their invention earlier this year of a microphone so sensitive that it can distinguish between nearly identical strains of bacteria by the vibrations they make. This “nano-ear” is capable of picking up sounds over a million times fainter than the human ear can.

Nanotechnology is innovating almost every field of science and technology. From the detection and prevention of infectious diseases to the collection of solar energy, the implications of working with particles on the nanoscale are wide reaching. The applications of nano developments will revolutionize many areas of society with new technologies as well as with cost-effective replacements of old ones, and both types of advances will have implications around the globe. There is reason to be both hopeful and cautious of what this new level of innovation can accomplish for both the wealthiest and most impoverished nations on the globe.

The all-encompassing field of nanotechnology will soon play an invisible role in every aspect of society. Nanotechnology is a catch-all term for any form of innovation that comes out of the specific manipulation of particles on the nanoscale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and it is the scale on which atoms and molecules are measured. Comparatively, if human beings were only a nanometer tall, planet Earth would be merely 7.5 millimeters wide.

A ‘nanoparticle’ is any particle that is best measured in nanometers. Nanoparticles are of a size that is roughly the length a fingernail grows in the time it takes to read this sentence. Every atom and molecule is a nanoparticle, and thus the nanoscale exists naturally in the world. Nanotechnology is any technology that is developed as a result of meticulously working with specific atoms and molecules.

To start with, this manipulation allows for smaller technology. The public imagination immediately leaps to such proposed inventions as ‘nanobots’ — miniature machines that could, for instance, autonomously conduct medical procedures within the human body. Nanotechnology, however, is not only the development of microscopic computers that function much as their larger counterparts. There is something unique in the properties of particles that exist on the nanoscale. The Journal of Nanotechnology Online describes how “when dealing with matter below approximately 50 nanometers, the laws of quantum physics supersede those of traditional physics”. Nanoparticles may have a different “conductivity, elasticity, reactivity, strength, color, and tolerance to temperature and pressure” than the same material on a larger scale. Taking advantage of these differences allows for brand new innovations which have no precedence in technology of a traditional scale.

Nanotechnology got fully underway after the 1981 invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, which is an instrument that images surfaces at the atomic level. Beyond simply depicting nanoparticles up close, however, scientists discovered that they could use the microscope to actually touch individual atoms and carefully move them around. Nanotechnology sprung out of such intentional arrangements of atoms and molecules. Those responsible, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for their achievement. Scientists became much better able to observe and manipulate interactions between atoms, and so they began to develop new technologies as a result of both better understanding certain reactions and intentionally manipulating such small particles.

The Computer of a Lifetime

Stepping away from the concept of microscopic machines, one invention in particular illustrates how diverse the use of nanotechnology can be. Central Japan International Airport has nearly 15,000 panes of glass on one face of the building. They are kept clean using a nano invention. Titanium Dioxide clusters less than 10 nanometers in diameter coat the windows. They are invisible to the human eye, but when excited by the sun’s UV rays, this photocatalytic coating breaks down dirt clinging to the window, allowing it to float away on a gentle breeze.

One of the earliest and greatest discoveries of nanotechnology is the carbon nanotube. Carbon nanotubes are single molecules of carbon atoms bonded together in the shape of a tube. The walls of the tube are made up of a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms. The lattice wraps in on itself to form the hollow tubes that can be many million times longer than they are wide. Collected in multitude, carbon nanotubes could look like nothing more than a fine, black powder to the human eye. Their uses, however, are many.

Foremost, carbon nanotubes are the strongest material ever discovered in terms of tensile strength and elasticity, far surpassing the capabilities of steel for some uses. But their unique, hollow nature makes them not nearly as strong under compression or bending stress. For the right uses, however, carbon nanotubes can maintain the same strength as other materials at a drastically reduced weight. Already nanotubing is being used in high-performance sports equipment such as tennis rackets and bicycle frames. The number of applications is growing, including possible uses in light-weight structures. Hypothetical uses proposed by some scientists include cables that attach space stations to our planet’s surface to guide independently-propelled elevators directly to the satellites.

Carbon nanotubes also have very unique conductive properties. According to the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, carbon nanotubes are only about as conductive of thermal energy across their width as soil. Along their length, however, they are nearly ten times as conductive of thermal energy as copper. When it comes to electrical current running along its length, carbon nanotubes can theoretically reach an electric current density up to 1,000 [times] greater than that of copper.

A representation of the carbon atom lattice in graphene.

This has significant implications for both decreasing the size and increasing the processing power of computers of the future. A carbon lattice called graphene that is similar to that in nanotubes is currently being tested by researchers at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in the United States as a potential replacement for conventional silicon in computer microchips. While silicon conductors have a significantly larger limit of how close they can be placed next to each other before interference occurs, graphene is the next step in shrinking computer processors as its conductors can be packed much more densely together. Nanotechnology is creating a very plausible method to fit the processing power of today’s computers into dramatically smaller apparatuses. Such computers could be worn as glasses, an ear piece, or even internally attached directly to a user’s brain using other nano developments that allow prosthesis to better connect with nerve fibers.

Computers developed with nanotechnology can even go a step further, however. Professor Jim Gimzewski of UCLA is currently collaborating with Japanese physicist Dr. Masakazu Aono to create a “neuromorphic computer”. On the nanoscale, the atoms in silver molecules protrude slightly when a current is passed through them. This discovery was initially investigated as a form of computer “on-off”, or binary, switch as the protrusion can create a conductive bridge between nearby silver molecule chains. The benefit was first thought to be only how small the technology allowed such binary switches to be manufactured.

Gimzewski, however, saw another use. The silver atoms remained in their configuration for a short time after the current had finished flowing. This reminded Gimzewski of how the human brain creates memories by establishing connections through which electrons can flow. By using a configuration of silver atoms that is reminiscent of the tangled web of brain synapses, Gimzewski seeks to model a computer off the human brain. The research is in its infancy now, but rather than being hard-coded with processes, such a computer could learn through repetition much the way a developing human brain does. Through nanotechnology, the possibility exists for an artificial intelligence that could be taught — rather than programmed — to think.

Nano-Medicines

Nanotechnology’s implications for the health sciences are just as profound and run the range from the convenient to the lifesaving. Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at North Western University, explained to the CBC’s David Suzuki in interview how new developments have changed diagnostics:

Nanotechnology is bringing a revolution to medicine in many different areas. On the diagnostic front, it’s going to create very accurate, very sensitive tools that enable point-of-care diagnostics. The point-of-care being hospitals, the emergency room, and one day, the doctor’s office and at home.

Operating on a smaller scale allows for both greater accuracy and greater efficiency. The first signs of a disease appear within the human body on the nanoscale, and being able to detect them right away could save lives. In addition, using newly-developed screening methods as replacements for old ones, a multitude of tests for diseases, viruses, and even genetic predispositions can all be completed on a single sample of blood. This is both cheaper and quicker than the formerly required multiple vials that were often sent away to different laboratories.

Combining these two innovations, there is a potential for medical diagnostics of the future to be carried out continuously by implanted devices that are monitored by the patient themselves. The previously mentioned computer attached directly to the brain could report on viruses that have newly entered the bloodstream as easily as it could access the internet to check the weather for its user.

Returning to the present, new developments are already helping with medicine delivery. A concept as straightforward as pH-sensitive gels that breakdown at a specific pH level was made possible through nanotechnology nearly a decade ago. Such a gel can be used to treat patients with multiple sclerosis more efficiently by allowing coated drugs to release at varying rates depending on the pH of the surrounding environment.

Home to Dr. Omid Farokhzad's breakthrough, the exterior of Harvard Medical School.

The concept of targeted-delivery is now revolutionizing the treatment of cancer. Earlier forms of chemotherapy targeted the cancerous cells, but they also targeted nearby healthy cells. This led to the many difficult and painful side effects associated with chemotherapy. In an orally administered treatment, for instance, less than two percent of the drug makes it to the tumor, and the rest creates unwanted toxicity in the body. Better-targeted applications of chemotherapy developed through nanotechnology not only reduce side effects, but allow the concentrations of the drug to be greatly increased at the target area, increasing its effectiveness.

Dr. Omid Farokhzad at Harvard Medical School has developed such a method. His targeted delivery protocols are the first in the world of its kind to enter human clinical trials. He explains its benefits in an interview with Suzuki:

In the context of a nanoparticle, you can increase the amount of drug at the tumor site by 20-fold. In order to achieve that level of tumor concentration of a chemotherapy drug, you would have to deliver a very high dose of chemotherapy, which would actually be lethal to the patient, but in the context of a nanoparticle, you can actually have complete tumor eradication.

By working on the nanoscale, his methods deliver medicine in particles less than ten nanometers wide, which are so small that they can roam the body freely. Using Farokhzad’s incredible techniques, the drug to be administered is first coated in a dissolving plastic to allow for its safe delivery; it is then disguised by water molecules to evade eradication by the body’s immune system; and finally it is coated in ligands that bind to specific receptors that grow only on tumor cells.

His research may soon have uses in many other forms of treatment. Farokhzad says that “what we are seeing today is just really the tip of the iceberg. The medicine that we’re going to be practicing thirty, forty, or fifty years from now will look nothing like today.”

The Potential for Green

Development in solar panel cost and efficiency is one area nanotechnology could profoundly affect the world.

In addition to computers and medicine, nanotechnology is also leading to innovations in sustainable living. Ted Sargent of the University of Toronto is working at the nanoscale to dramatically increase the efficiency of solar energy collection. Though complete reliance on solar energy is only a pipe-dream, he points out in an interview with the CBC that the amount of energy that strikes the earth’s surface every hour is enough to meet the energy demands of every country on the planet for an entire year. Low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells are one way to help meet the world’s energy needs and decrease dependency on crude oil.

Nanotechnology is leading to such solar cells. Current solar panels are only able to harvest energy from the sun’s visible spectrum of radiation. Using carefully prepared nanoparticles, Sargent hopes to be able to easily double the efficiency of solar panels:

Fully half of the sun’s energy lies in the infrared frequencies. My research acknowledges that we need to capture all of that energy if we’re going to make an efficient solar cell … When we make three different batches of nanoparticles, we can program them each to be responsive to do different slices of the sun’s spectrum.

In addition, he hopes to be able to move beyond the conventional panel model for solar cells. His nanoparticle solar cells are lighter and flexible, theoretically able to be deployed on sails or even clothing, and they are cheaper as well. Rather than using isolated panels, Sargent says of his new solar cells that “by virtue of their lower cost, you won’t hesitate to deploy them across the entire surface of a building”. Through such low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells, gathering even 1/10,000 of the sun’s energy to meet the world’s needs seems slightly more plausible.

Guanajuato, Mexico, a city of over 100,000 people whose hope is that nanotechnology can cheaply filter arsenic from the ground water.

While Sargent’s solar cells are only in development, nanotechnology is already creating cheaper methods to meet the world’s environmental needs. Even though arsenic concentrations in drinking water have been linked to cancer, more than 55 million people around the world still drink water that is contaminated with the toxin. Guanajuato, Mexico, is a city of some hundred thousand people with heavy arsenic concentrations in its ground water. One relatively cheap solution is already being tested there is a filtration system of incredible efficiency thanks to nanoparticles.

The Journal of Nanotechnology Online points out that one of the strengths of nanoparticles is their incredible surface-to-volume ratio. The smaller the particles of a substance are, the more surface area the substance possesses. Such a simple concept of geometry has profound advantages in reactions that are based surface-to-surface contact. Ferrous oxide, or rust, naturally bonds with arsenic. A filter made out of billions of tiny ferrous oxide nanoparticles can very cheaply and efficiently clean arsenic from ground water that passes through it.

This strength of the surface area of nanoparticle solutions is also being used to clean emissions and increase the efficiency of diesel engines. A diesel additive of cerium oxide nanoparticles eliminates pre-existing nanoparticles in diesel engine exhaust that have been linked to heart attacks in those breathing in the fumes. In addition, as the cerium oxide additive is used up in the diesel, the oxygen it releases greatly increases the efficiency of the combustion engine.

Another such nanoparticle chemical reaction helping to clean the environment is being developed by Professor Dennis O’Carrol of the University of Western Ontario. Costly chemical spills that normally require excavation to clean up are being dealt with by nanoparticles that can be pumped into the ground water. The nanoparticle solution reacts with appropriate contaminates, breaking them down into their harmless components, and allowing them to be flushed out. At peak efficiency, the resultant runoff water then contains only naturally occurring molecules that are otherwise drinkable.

Nano on a Global Scale

With the vast diversity of innovations coming out of the growing field of nanotechnology, it is not surprising that it has a crucial role to play in the progress being made in the developing world. The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development and the Commission on Science and Technology for Development both suggested early on that nanotechnology can help “reduce the cost and increase the likelihood of attaining the Millennium Development Goals”. The Journal for Nanotechnology Online reports that “individuals with the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka believe that, whilst nanotechnology research and development is ‘high-tech’, the products it enables can be appropriate for use throughout the world”. Likewise, the U.N. Under-Secretary for Economic Affairs pushed to include nanotechnology in discussions concerning emerging technology and sustainable development.

Many of the applications of nanotechnology have obvious roles to play in developing nations. In 2005, the Public Library of Science published a report ranking the top ten applications of nanotechnology for their potential to help reach the U.N.’s Millennium Goals. Research of the greatest applicability was deemed to be in the area of energy storage, production, and conversion, which could help ensure environmental sustainability. The long-term benefit of such technology is significant, but other areas of nanotechnology are able to contribute more immediately.

Agricultural productivity enhancement ranked second where innovations in areas of plant fertilizers and nutrients and drugs for livestock are already having immediate returns for combating hunger, something that is at the root of many of the obstacles of the Millennium goals. Water treatment, disease diagnosis/screening, and drug delivery systems, such as those discussed earlier, ranked third, fourth, and fifth respectively.

Solar panels for sale in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where new, affordable, and efficient solar panels could have a big impact.

Many see the medical applications of nanotechnology as some of the most critical for improving quality of life in developing nations. Safer and cheaper diagnosis and treatment of diseases are at the core of alleviating suffering in rural areas, but simpler to use methods developed through nanotechnology are also able to help by freeing up the limited medical staff in such situations. In rural areas, energy innovations are also able to aid the quality of medical treatment. Groups in the U.S., India, and Mexico have been working jointly on inexpensive and maintenance-free solar panels aimed at providing rural clinics with the necessary electricity to stay in operation and importantly keep medications refrigerated in areas where electricity is unreliable.

There are still hurdles to overcome, however. Foremost, technologies for developing countries must take into account their realities. Many proposed innovations for impoverished areas have turned out to be overly expensive or inappropriate to their circumstances. Solutions for such areas need to be tailored to their situations. Thankfully, the efficiency of many nanotechnologies already makes them a better choice for impoverished areas than the solutions that already exist.

Worries still exist, however, that nanotechnologies will become another import upon which developing nations are dependent, only increasing the economic divide. Though their implementation is often relatively inexpensive, research and development into nanotechnologies is costly, an expense affordable mostly by developed countries. China and India, however, have established national activities in nanotechnology research and continue to make great strides. Thailand, the Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, and Chile all have some form of government support or national funding for nanotechnology programs, and many other countries now have private enterprises following suit. So long as investment into nanotechnology research does not heavily detract resources from critical issues in developing nations, the chance even exists for such countries to leap to the forefront of this relatively new industry and become powerful exporters of the technologies in their own rights.

The diverse and pervasive industry of nanotechnology is hardly predictable on a technological front let alone an economic one. The only certainty is that it will have profound implications for the societies of tomorrow in both developing and developed nations.

Interview with Nanotechnologist Jim Gimzewski

“My sights are set on building a machine that demonstrates intelligence without programming.”

Jim Gimzewski, professor at UCLA.

Jim Gimzewski is a leader in the field of Nanotechnology. A Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, he is also the Director of the UCLA CNSI Nano & Pico Characterization Core Facility. In 2009, Gimzewski was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the highest award in Britain for excellence in Science.

A Growing Technology

The Global Intelligence: As a pioneer in the field, what is nanotechnology to you? What is it not?
Jim Gimzewski: Nanotechnology is a fairly broad subject impacting and traversing many existing fields of research from medicine to spacecraft. Generally speaking, nanotechnology is where critical dimensions of a system are in the range of 1 to 100 nm. That is of course small, but nanosystems themselves can be assembled on larger scales, such as solar panels or self-cleaning walls, and also on smaller scales, such as 50 nm for targeted drug-delivery systems. Metrics aside, nanotechnology is about convergence of fields of science and the development of new approaches and paradigms for science and technology. In most existing areas of science and technology, the nanometer is a new frontier, and it’s necessary to converge those fields for many desired properties, applications, or new technologies to develop. What is not nanotech is some person telling you how big a nanometer is in relation to a penny or something. Aside from the fact that humans can’t understand size on this scale, it’s really boring and I have heard it being repeated for the last 25 years.

TGI: Nanotechnology is allowing for revolutionary developments in many areas of science. In which fields do you see nanotechnology having the most profound impacts?
JG: The most profound areas I see making a big impact are firstly in medicine, both for fast, cheap diagnostics and for a whole new class of therapies. I think of cancer diagnosis and treatment in particular with Nano encapsulated drugs that target tumors. Already Abraxane is an anticancer drug that employs some moderate aspects of nanotechnology, and there are many developments going on at present. Next I believe it will be in materials that are getting big. For instance, nanoconcrete has been developed by Iran that is impenetrable by conventional bombs but which cuts down on greenhouse gases and is earthquake proof. Likewise self-cleaning windows cut energy consumption. Insulating paints and eventually solar ‘paint-on’ panels are already partially developed. Nanoclay is employed in food packaging to reduce gas permeation. New sports items are using carbon nanotubes. Materials for cosmetics are also a very large area through the use of encapsulation technology.

TIG: Do you see the most useful innovations of nanotechnology coming out of a focus on brand new applications or efficient replacements for older technology?
JG: Both revolutionary and evolutionary innovation needs to occur in parallel. To increase solar cell efficiency a few percent with a cost reduction is clearly an important evolution for energy. To develop a new form of computer with physical intelligence is clearly revolutionary. What appears as a revolution will be unexpected, but it’s fair to say that there are so many evolutionary areas in energy, medicine, national security, and ITC where nanotechnology can help that all of those small developments add up such that we can change the world from energy inefficiency and polluting to clean and green.

TGI: Efficient and affordable technology can be critical in dealing with the issues faced by developing nations. What has been nanotechnology’s single greatest contribution in this area so far?
JG: The danger is that developing countries will be alienated by nanotechnology development. Worse still, nanotechnology offers the opportunity to reduce jobs in those countries through automation, robotics AI, and self-assembly. Exceptions are China where nanotechnology is important in their long-term strategies. I also believe the Middle East is and will continue to develop nanotechnology for issues such as water desalination and solar power.

TIG: New technology often creates fears both real and imagined in society. Are there any areas of nanotechnology that have given you cause for concern?
JG: There are always utopian and dystopian visions of any new technology that seems like magic to the layperson. For instance, swarms of nanobots and so on are good for science fiction, but those are not real dangers. There are areas of concern however. As nanoparticles, such as silver, are being increasingly found as antimicrobials in sports gear, food packaging, fridges, and so on, one does need to evaluate not only their potential toxicity but also their effects on the environment. For instance, how do they influence wastewater treatment, and how do they potentially affect wildlife. Also in food, nanotechnology is growing exponentially whether it’s nanoencapsulated nutrients and flavor or packaging. Labelling is not obligatory in the U.S., and people have a right to know what they eat and drink. We should not repeat the genetically modified food story again and instead have open information and debates. The other area regards how nanotechnology will be exploited and controlled by corporations and governments and how it will play out in determining the world’s economies. Most large corporations are using Nanotechnology in products or in the factory. The influence they will have on protecting or destroying nanotechnologies is complex. For instance, imagine we don’t rely on oil as a major energy source. What would oil companies’ lobbying do against the development? How would wars and unrest in the Middle East be influenced? Nanotechnology will influence us globally both positively and negatively.

TGI: Though many developments in nanotechnology have been private ventures, do you feel there is room or necessity for public oversight into this growing science?
JG: Nanotechnology should not be allowed to be the owned and controlled by a small group of corporations. It is part of humankind’s development. As such public engagement and transparency should be guaranteed and provided by governments and NGO’s. Education is a key component for the development of nanotechnology, and it should not be confined to science and technology but also to the humanities and arts where the ethical and moral aspects can be analyzed and where public outreach can be achieved through communication using the media of the arts. If we don’t do that, we firstly endanger the sustainability of society by not creating the young, educated, and creative people we need for nanotechnology to succeed, and we would also do disservice to the public in not letting them have some say in their and their children’s destiny.

Getting Personal

TIG: How did you get your start in nanotechnology? What was it like then?
JG: I joined the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory in 1983 to work on a microscope called the scanning tunnelling microscope that made atoms and molecules visible and capable of individual manipulation. That promulgated nanotechnology to come into existence. Back then it was the most exciting journey to see nano-landscapes that no one had seen before. It was like space exploration in the opposite scale. Everything seemed possible, and we felt we were challenging many of the basic assumptions of science.

TGI: In your prolific career, what was the single most astounding moment of innovation for you?
JG: I was sitting in IBM trying to use a nanomechanical sensor to study the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to form water on a platinum coated cantilever when it started to oscillate. We thought it was an artifact and could eliminate it. It turned out that we were watching an oscillating chemical reaction but studying it using nanomechanics. I loved that moment of satori because I recalled a discussion in the Max Planck Institute in Berlin with Professor [Gerhard] Ertl where he showed me beautiful patterns set to music for his birthday that were due to oscillations in another reaction. My mind connected that musical moment with what was happening in the nanoscale sensor.

TGI: What are your sights set on next?
JG: My sights are set on building a machine that demonstrates intelligence without programming — a system where ‘thought’ and ‘memory’ emerge. We have started on the research work, and when it functions, it could challenge the whole concept of human and machine as separate and different entities.

Getting Water from a Worm

Cost-effective and sustainable solutions are needed to solve the world’s water crisis.

A resident digs for water in a dried-up river bed in the Turkana region of Kenya.

When Chilean company BioFiltro was awarded first place at the Cleantech Open Global Ideas competition in November 2011, co-founder Matias Sjorgen thanked an extensive supporting cast:

“Thanks to all my worms,” he said, accepting the award in Silicon Valley, California. “They work 24 hours per day, seven days per week. So the prize is for the worms.”

The Cleantech Open is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization with the mandate to “find, fund, and foster entrepreneurs with big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental, and economic challenges.” With its use of worms and tiny organic microbes to consume the impurities in wastewater, BioFiltro has created a natural sewage treatment system that uses 80 percent less energy and runs at just one-third the cost of traditional chemical wastewater treatment with no harmful byproducts.

The technology has been used successfully in Chile on a small scale since it was first developed 20 years ago. Along with $100,000 in services to help promote the business, winning the Cleantech Open also brought BioFiltro exposure on the international stage. Shortly after winning the competition, the company landed a meeting with World Bank in February 2012 to examine bringing the technology to Africa.

The meeting represents the first significant development in finding a solution to the world’s water crisis since the United Nations finally recognized clean water and sanitation as a human right in July 2010. Though the United Nations claims it is on pace to meet and exceed the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation, its own lead expert has pointed out problems in the U.N.’s methodology and called for more substantive changes.

Close to one billion of the planet’s seven billion people do not have access to clean drinking water. Over 2.6 billion people do not have improved sanitation, and over 1.2 billion people practice open defecation — staggering figures considering that the greatest threat to clean drinking water is contamination from poor sanitation.

Why for so many years had the United Nations failed to recognize the right to clean water and sanitation as a basic human right?

The Human Right to Clean Water

The Congo River is some people's main source of water for drinking, cooking, and washing.

Though essential for survival, the right to clean drinking water and sanitation was not recognized as a human right until July 2010 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 64/292, “The human right to water and sanitation.”

The recognition was a long time coming. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contained 30 articles defining various inalienable civil, cultural, economic, and social rights, but it did not define the right to clean water and sanitation as a human right.

Curiously, the first international recognition of a right to clean water and sanitation came about only in mention of prisoners of war and civilians in occupied countries. The Geneva Convention IV of 1949 stated that “sufficient drinking water shall be supplied to internees”, and they “shall be provided with sufficient water and soap for their daily personal toilet and for washing their personal laundry.”

From 1949 until 2010, while nations had an express obligation to provide clean water and sanitation to citizens of nations they were occupying, they were under no obligation in U.N. conventions to provide the same necessities to their own citizens, whether in wartime or in peace.

In 1966, the United Nations had two further opportunities to state expressly the right to water as a human right, but again it remained silent. Like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights affirmed essential rights such as the right to life, the right to dignity and the right to self-determination. However, the covenant contained no mention of a right to clean water and sanitation.

The same year, the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights required member nations to protect and fulfill rights such as the right to health, the right to housing and the right to work. Remarkably, the right to clean water and sanitation was again not stated expressly. In recognizing and adopting the tenets of the convention as part of their own domestic law, many member nations expressly acknowledged that the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to health include the right to clean water and sanitation. However, many other nations did not.

In 1977, two protocols protected the victims of armed conflict. One stated that “it is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as … drinking water installations … for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party”. The right to clean water was not universally extended to all people, however.

When the United Nations released General Comment 15 in 2002, stating that the right to clean water and sanitation are essential to the rights expressly enumerated by the covenant, the number of nations that acknowledged domestically the right to clean water and sanitation doubled. However, it is important to note that General Comments are issued for clarification and are not binding.

By 2002, the right to water had been implicit in several other United Nations conventions, including the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the 1999 Protocol on Water and Health. Subsequent to the 2002 clarification, a similar right to “clean water services” appeared in the 2003 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Despite the position articulated in General Comment 15 that the right to water should be read into existing covenants, and despite the recognition of a right to water and sanitation in the covenants stated above, in 2006 the United Nations Human Rights Council decided the issue of whether the right to water should be a human right required more study. Resolution 2/104, “Human Rights and Access to Water”, directed the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to conduct a study examining “the scope and content of the relevant human rights obligations related to equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation under international human rights instruments”.

The following year, a concluding report from the study was published and the High Commissioner came to his conclusion: “It is now the time to consider access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right.”

Rather than finally proceed with acknowledging this essential human right, the United Nations again determined more study was required. In March 2008, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution appointing an Independent Expert “on human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation.” That same year, the United Nations appointed Portuguese law professor Catarina de Albuquerque as an Independent Expert, and in 2009 and 2010, de Albuquerque met with expert consultants on the Millennium Development Goals and the human rights of water and sanitation.

45-year-old Bashe Ahmed Bile collects water for his relatives from an Oxfam water pump in Somalia.

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 64/292, finally stating the right to clean water and sanitation is a human right. The resolution, which was initiated by Bolivia, does not bind member states the way a covenant would, but finally created an official recognition that many of the existing rights already entrenched by convention include the right to safe water as a necessary component.

The independent expert presented her report entitled “Human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation” to the United Nations General Assembly in August 2010. Surprisingly, her conclusions on the overall progress in meeting Millennium Development Goals were much different than the U.N.’s own analysis.

The Myths of the UN Millennium Development Goals

Under the United Nations Millennium Declaration of September 2000, 189 nations committed to work together to reduce extreme poverty in the world. Millennium Development Goal 7.C commits the international community to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.”

In her report, the independent expert stressed the important role clean water and sanitation play in achieving many of the other Millennium Development Goals. She notes that access to clean water and sanitation “can reduce the risk of child mortality by 50 percent” (Goal 4), “reduce diseases such as anemia and vitamin deficiency that undermine maternal health” (Goal 5), and reduce the risk of disease such as malaria “which claims the lives of some 1.3 million people per year, 90 percent of them children under the age of five” (Goal 6) and sicknesses such as diarrhea, which cost “443 million school days each ear” (Goal 2). Finally, by decreasing water collection and responsibilities and time spent caring for relatives with water-related diseases, women will have more of an opportunity to engage in productive activities (Goal 3).

Perhaps the most direct connection is between water and nutrition. De Albequerque wrote:

Looking beyond basic water supply for personal and domestic uses, the absence of clean water and sanitation is also a major cause of poverty and malnutrition, and water insecurity linked to climate change may increase the number of people suffering malnutrition by 75 million up to 125 million by 2080 (Goals 1 and 7).

There are substantial differences between the UN’s 2010 progress report on the Millennium Development Goals and the independent expert’s 2010 report. While the UN progress report states water and sanitation goals will be met by 2015, the independent expert says the goals will not be met at the current rate of progress.

The UN’s 2010 progress report states, “The world is on track to meet the drinking water target, though much remains to be done in some regions.” The report goes on to state:

If current trends continue, the world will meet or even exceed the MDG drinking water target by 2015. By that time, an estimated 86 percent of the population in developing regions will have gained access to improved sources of drinking water.

In the developing regions as a whole, drinking water coverage in urban areas, which stood at 94 percent in 2008, has remained almost unchanged since 1990. At the same time, rural drinking water coverage increased from 60 percent in 1990 to 76 percent in 2008, narrowing the gap between rural and urban areas.

However, in her September 2010 report, the independent expert pointed out some significant problems with the UN’s analysis, bringing many conclusions in the progress report into question. In her overview of the situation, she explains her conclusion that the targets are not likely to be met by 2015:

According to the latest estimates, 884 million people worldwide rely on unimproved water sources. Of those, 84 percent live in rural areas. Sanitation is of greater concern still, as it is one of the least likely to be targets. Some 2.6 billion people worldwide are without improved sanitation and 1.2 billion people — mostly in rural areas — continue to practice open defecation. If the current rate of progress is maintained, the sanitation target will be missed by 13 percentage points, meaning that, by 2015, 2.7 billion people will still be without access to improved sanitation.

As de Albequerque goes on to point out, there is significant disparity between the Millennium Development Goal of bringing clean water and sanitation to half the people who don’t have access, and the fact that by UN declaration, all persons have the basic human right to clean water and sanitation. In short — why is the remaining half being deprived of its human rights?

The disparity prompted de Albequerque to note, “even if the targets are met, many people will still not have access to water and sanitation. Hence, efforts to realize access to both sanitation and water must be reinforced.”

Meeting the Millennium Development Goals “would still leave 672 million people without access to water and 1.7 billion people without access to sanitation in 2015”. Human rights standards go much further than the Millennium Development Goals. International human rights law requires countries to aim for universal coverage within time frames unique to the circumstances and needs of each country. Under the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, states are required to follow a course of “progressive realization”, which means they are “under the obligation to progressively realize the rights to water and sanitation to the maximum of their available resources”.

One of the failings of the Millenium Development Goals, de Albequerque said, is the lack of “incentives to go beyond the standard necessary to reach the Goals”. Countries formulating domestic policy in the belief that in achieving the Millennium Development Goals they will be discharging their human rights obligations are mistaken, de Albequerque said.

Instead, she said, developing countries should follow the lead of states such as Bengladesh, Kenya, and South Africa, which all set targets for access to water and sanitation higher than those of the Millenium Development Goals. Other countries have gone even further — Sri Lanka plans to have universal access to water by 2025.

Countries with inadequate resources to satisfy the human rights to clean water and sanitation are obliged to call on the international community for assistance, and the international community has a duty to respond.

The independent expert said in her report that the responsibility for the failure to meet the target of Millennium Development Goal 7.C falls both on those asking for and providing aid:

The poor record of achievement for target 7.C. reflects inadequate political prioritization by donor and partner countries alike, particularly in the case of sanitation. While aid for water and sanitation is increasing in absolute terms, the share of the water and sanitation sector has been declining relative to other sectors. Moreover, aid is generally not well-targeted: only 42 percent of aid for these sectors committed between 2006 and 2008 was addressed to least developed and other low-income countries. The share of aid for basic sanitation and water services decreased from 27 percent in 2003 to 16 percent in 2008, much greater shares being directed at large systems, which generally do not reach the poorest segments of the population. Strikingly, only about one third of aid to the water and sanitation sectors is directed to sanitation, even though far greater efforts are needed in this area.

But how could the United Nations and its independent expert arrive at such different conclusions about progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals? How could the UN conclude the goal will be met, while the independent expert concludes that it won’t?

Part of the explanation for this discrepancy comes from a difference in the definition of terms used in assessing the progress. As de Albequerque points out, the measure of success for meeting Target 7.C is whether people gain access to an “improved source of water”, a term which goes undefined. She writes:

The indicator for target 7.C is the proportion of the population having sustainable access to an improved water source. The definition of an improved water source is not specified in detail but refers mainly to the specific types of water supply such as piped water or protected wells.

She goes on to explain that many of the “improved” water sources the UN counts as satisfying the target goal may not actually do anything to improve the water people receive. For example, if people have been drawing contaminated groundwater from an open well for many years, putting a cap on the well qualifies it as an “improved source of water” even if the water remains contaminated. She stresses the importance of including an assessment of drinking water safety.

“This is already done in Bangladesh, where a serious contamination of the groundwater with arsenic made it mandatory to monitor water quality since many ‘improved’ water sources were severely contaminated,” de Albequerque said in the report.

Focusing on whether the infrastructure of a water source is “improved” presupposes an improvement in water quality that may not exist, but it also fails to consider whether there is an adequate quantity of water. In many areas, seasonal dry spells could result in a lack of water for extended periods of time. A well that is properly capped but completely dry would be considered an “improved water source” under the definition the UN uses in assessing progress in meeting Millennium Development Goals. Thus, communities with contaminated water or no water at all are still counted as success stories.

A water engineer tests the quality of water from a well.

Because it puts the focus on the infrastructure at the point of water collection, the UN analysis also fails to take into account proximity to the water source. The independent expert asserts that a better indicator of accessibility would consider not only the safety of the water source, but also the amount of time water collection takes. A person’s distance from the water source affects the quantity of water that can be collected. Likewise, de Albequerque concluded there should be an examination of accessibility in “schools, workplaces and other spheres of life”.

Apart from these problems in methodology, another major concern the independent expert identified is the relationship between drinking water and sanitation. The Millennium Development Goals specify that human excreta is to be kept separate from water but says nothing about its proper disposal. De Albequerque identified this as a serious threat to clean water:

Where the collection, treatment, disposal or re-use of excreta is not carried out with adequate care, leakage into groundwater, which is often a source of drinking water, may occur. Similarly, sewage from flush toilets that is not treated may end up in water used by downstream communities. In such cases, leakage of sewage from “improved” sanitation facilities then results in polluting water sources which are nevertheless considered “improved” sources under the Millennium Development Goal framework.

The independent expert concluded that while the Millennium Development Goals reflect human rights responsibilities to some extent, additional considerations based on broader human rights standards bring the relative success of the Millennium Development Goals into question.

“When these additional criteria are factored in, a much bleaker picture emerges. While the extent of the gap is unknown, far more people than indicated by the figures measuring access to improved water sources and sanitation facilities do not have access to sufficient water and sanitation services that are safe, acceptable, accessible and affordable,” she stated in her report.

Looking to the Worms

The greatest threat to clean water is poor sanitation, but as de Albequerque stated in her report, a disproportionately high percentage of international aid is earmarked for water projects instead of sanitation projects. Investing in proper sanitation will protect water sources by reducing the risk of contamination.

In that respect, the BioFiltro system does what most sanitation systems would do: it creates a secure holding area for human waste and prevents sewage from entering watering holes and groundwater. However, BioFiltro goes a step further in that it also converts the wastewater into clean water while creating a natural byproduct of nutrient-rich fertilizer.

BioFiltro systems vary in size depending upon the amount of waste being treated. However, all systems contain multiple filter layers consisting of porous material and filtering stones. Sewage is irrigated into the upper porous level, which houses a large number of earthworms, rotifers and other microscopic organisms. The liquid portion of the sewage drains through the filter, which holds the organic waste material.

The worms consume the effluent waste material, converting it into carbon dioxide, water and earthworm castings. The castings can then be collected and used in agriculture as a nutrient-rich fertilizer. Because the waste feeds the worms, they procreate and multiply in the filtration system itself, which makes them cost-effective, self-generating organic filters.

After the liquid drains from the top level, it passes through a lower layer of filtering stones where micro-organisms continue the organic filtration. The process is repeated until the water is 99 percent free of fecal coliform. While not suitable for human consumption in that state, it can still be used for agricultural irrigation without contaminating the food.

Communities using such a system would not only protect their water sources and safely treat their sewage, they could also collect the water and fertilizer to safely grow crops that are currently irrigated only with contaminated water. In communities where water needs are satisfied, the production of water and fertilizer from sewage treatment could actually become a source of income.

The technology BioFiltro uses was first developed at the University of Chile almost 20 years ago, and the company was founded two years later. BioFiltro has already had many years of success with small-scale projects in Chile, providing sewage treatment services for communities and organizations with 6,000 to 16,000 people. Today there are BioFiltro sites in 24 communities in Chile, with additional projects in New Zealand, France, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uraguay.

Over the years, the company’s projects grew larger, and in the last decade, BioFiltro began offering a similar filtration system for liquid industrial waste. There have been 42 such projects in Chile since 2001, handling a maximum discharge of 7,800 cubic meters per day.

BioFiltro has had the most success with their smaller sewage treatment systems in northern Chilean communities. While operating on a small-scale may seem like a business limitation, it could prove to be a great strength in bringing clean water and sanitation to rural areas where they are most needed, particularly in Africa.

As Sjorgen pointed out in a January 2012 interview in the Santiago Times, BioFiltro’s green process uses 80 percent less energy at one-third the cost of traditional chemical wastewater treatment.

“We are a business with a simple and sustainable technology, which is necessary in Africa,” Sjorgen said.

The international community has begun to take notice of Sjorgen and his company. BioFiltro’s victory in the Cleantech Open Global Ideas competition attracted the attention of the World Bank, the international financial institution that works to reduce poverty by offering loans and other programs of assistance developing countries.

A 2010 report by the World Bank said one third of the bank’s total lending, approximately $54 billion, was linked to water shortages. However, there was a great discrepancy between countries with the greatest need and the amount of aid offered. Countries most in need of water, such as Ethiopia, Haiti and Niger, were given just one-seventh the amount of aid on a per capita basis, as water rich countries such as Guyana.

Critics of the World Bank’s water program, such as the international nonprofit organization WaterAid, say such discrepancies are the result of the World Bank’s insistence on placing economic conditions on its loans and aid. They call for the World Bank to simplify the process and provide aid where the need is greatest — and with no strings attached.

The Worm is Turning

Perhaps the best way to simplify the funding process for international aid and the water crisis in general is to fund technologies that simplify sanitation and water treatment. The U.N.’s independent expert on clean water and sanitation has said placing more of a focus on sanitation issues will reduce contamination and lead to safer water supplies. BioFiltro has shown that green technology can create wastewater treatment with 80 percent less energy at one-third the cost of traditional chemical treatment — while creating a natural byproduct that can be used as an asset for agriculture and a source of revenue.

Starting with its omission from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations repeatedly failed to acknowledge the right to clean water and sanitation as a human right. Simply put, it may be that the world’s water situation is at a crisis point today because the United Nations did not declare water a human right until 2010.

As with any form of international aid, the previous efforts of the World Bank and other international aid bodies have been complicated undertakings, fraught with political sensitivities and the ongoing difficulty of coping with increasing demand for increasingly scarce resources.

BioFiltro is leading the way toward sustainable water and sanitation solutions for the future. It’s a complicated issue, and the technology may not be an instant panacea for the world’s water crisis, but perhaps the most important aspect of its recent success is that there are thousands of other companies in the world striving to hit upon the same magic formula of achieving sustainable solutions that are also economically viable. The Cleantech Open Global Ideas competition last year attracted over 1,000 entrants from 23 countries, each with viable and sustainable business solutions. Other finalists included a cost-effective silicon solar cell technology from Denmark, a clean fuel technology from Sweden, and a U.S. company that produces clean energy from ocean waves.

Ultimately, a solution to the world water crisis is within reach, but the methods used must be economically sensible and sustainable. For Matias Sjorgen and other green entrepreneurs around the world who are developing such solutions, the worm is turning.

Autumn 2017