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A European strategy for nanotechnology
Nanotechnology means the manipulation of atoms or molecules to produce materials, devices and new technologies. It is the building of nanomaterials at nanoscale, atom by atom and molecule by molecule. The principle underlying nanotechnology is simple: instead of reducing matter to work down to the smallest possible particle, the smallest possible particle is extracted from matter. Nanotechnologies ("nano" is derived from the Greek "nannos" meaning "dwarf") demand enormous effort in terms of basic and applied multidisciplinary research involving a wide variety of specialisations: genomics and biotechnologies, sustainable development, food safety, aeronautics, health, etc.
Communication from the Commission "Towards a European strategy for nanotechnology" [COM(2004) 338 final – Not published in the Official Journal]
Materials have always been extracted from the ground, modified, heated, subjected to pressure, assembled, etc. All these procedures use a great deal of energy and, at the same time, generate a great deal of waste. Current industrial production is based on this manufacturing principle.
Nanotechnology, however, uses the individual atoms directly. It manipulates them and applies assembly processes to form groups of atoms with a view to manufacturing nanomaterials or nanomachines. With the prospect of obtaining greater performance with fewer raw materials, in particular via "bottom-up" manufacturing, nanotechnology has the potential to reduce waste across the whole life-cycle of products.
Nanoscience is often referred to as "horizontal", as it frequently brings together different areas of science and draws on an interdisciplinary approach. It may lead to progress in areas such as:
- healthcare, thanks to miniaturised diagnostics that could be used for early diagnosis of illness;
- information technologies, through data storage media and innovative displays;
- energy production and storage, with novel fuel cells or lightweight nanostructured solids that have the potential for efficient hydrogen storage;
- manufacturing, thanks to the miniaturisation of existing micro-systems and the imitation of nature through the building of structures starting at atomic and molecular level;
- research into food, water and the environment. In this field, nanotechnologies could be used to repair and clean-up environmental damage and remove pollution from contaminated areas;
- security, through novel detection systems with a high specificity that can provide early warning against biological or chemical agents.
Five dynamics are identified in the context of nanotechnology: research and development, infrastructure, education and training, innovation and the societal dimension. Joint action is needed at Community level in all of these interdependent areas in order to harness the potential of the European Research Area.
- Research and development: building the momentum. It is necessary not only to maintain excellence in research and development but also to strengthen investment in research relevant to industry, while reinforcing Community level research and coordinating national policies more closely to build up a critical mass.
- Infrastructure: European "poles of excellence". State-of-the-art equipment and instrumentation is increasingly crucial for the development of nanotechnology, and also to demonstrate whether research can be turned into potential products and processes. To accelerate the development of nanosciences, investment in a wide range of advanced facilities, instruments and equipment is essential.
- Investing in human resources. To harness the potential of nanotechnology, the EU needs an interdisciplinary population of researchers and engineers who can generate knowledge and ensure that this, in turn, is transferred to industry. Post-graduate and life-long training should therefore be encouraged.
- Industrial innovation, from knowledge to technology. European innovation and entrepreneurship in the field of nanotechnology must be stimulated. Nanotechnology depends on three additional factors: patenting of fundamental knowledge, regulation and metrology.
- Integrating the societal dimension. The aim is to adopt a proactive stance and fully integrate societal considerations into the research process, exploring its benefits, risks and deeper implications for society. In this context, a dialogue with citizens and consumers on research into nanotechnology is strongly encouraged.
Building upon the experience from the 6th Research Framework Programme, closer international cooperation in nanosciences and nanotechnologies is needed both with economically advanced countries, in order to share knowledge and reap the benefits of a critical mass, and with those that are less economically advanced, in order to give them access to knowledge and new technologies.