Regulating the unseen!

Thursday, 31 January 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The issues that one faces with regulating the known are quite well-known and have been well-experienced. With multiple systems and complexities, regulating has never been an easy task and all are never satisfied.

The world has seen executive orders, extraordinary gazette notifications, and five precepts to fatwas put in place in order to have some semblance of order and value systems. Having a constitution nationally and UN agencies globally and related law and order institutions still hasn’t enabled a society to have a clear answer to regulatory issues.

Many thorny issues surface every day. Today more challenges are on their way as we will not only have to manage the observed but will perhaps need more imaginative and creative regulations with the unseen.


The nano world

The unseen world that is referred to is the nano world and regulations are all about what one should do when nano materials and nano systems enter the world. Scientifically the nano world is seen and interpreted to some extent thanks to some spectacular advances in microscopy and instrumentation systems though not as well as one would like to do, but this is not the traditional ‘observations’ as we are used to.

Why the need to regulate? The nano techno science is well on its way to clocking a multiple trillion dollar aggregate yield to the global economy soon and no new technology has ever done that with such speed. This situation present reasons for celebrations as well as to ponder in earnest!

The underlying factor is the superior and an exciting range of properties that is found with nano scale materials and we are yet to understand the full story. These properties are at the existing record and one could have extreme ends in properties with the same material through manipulation – an electrical insulator can become an electrically conductive material, a perfectly inert material can be a perfect catalyst!



The manipulative ability of the atoms now taken over by humans means that new materials are always on the horizon; they are called metamaterials. Diamonds may not be as scarce as we consider because one could tinker around with the bonds of graphite and the material status today accorded to diamond is lowered by a reaction!

If what we know today yields this much, one can guess the potential and the consequent excitement that is generated by this technology. However, all minds may not always be in the right direction with positive exploitation of the technology. Therein we see the grand challenge.

This waywardness in our directions directs one to put in place certain checks and balances and therein the need to have a regulatory system is brought in. It is not about building the regulatory system achieving a draconian proportionally to the range of properties that are possible with all the elements in the periodic table and the potential new materials that is relevant – just for a moment consider the scenario that is emerging.

The famous butterfly effect – the colour perceived and admired is not due to the presence of certain dyes but due to biological structure and light interactions – used in introducing the nano science to students put into place on vehicles, clothing and myriad of other surfaces would mean circumstantial evidence in our traditional court of law becoming defunct overnight!

The colour of the hit-and-run car may depend on the angle of observation and the time of day and please mull over the effect of the traditional policeman making notes on a piece of paper and taking that statement to the court. One can be certain that the concept of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ will be a very easy one to crack. If this is complex enough, the technology is now coming out with materials to make you invisible – metamaterial cloaking! The proof-of-concept has already been demonstrated. H.G. Wells may have reasons to smile after all!

On top there would also be the ethical dilemmas – human abilities extended beyond the traditional limitations, which too need different way of management. We would be defining ethics and morals as we are used to and may be touting human rights and human values.

To put that statement into some perspective, imagine that nano implants enabling any one to hear anything over greater distances and nano devices enabling record of conversations and pictures at will but without any being seen. The bird on your window ledge may be with a special eye soaking in everything and transmitting information and the funny beetle that you just saw may be not what you usually imagined one to be.

Imagine the UK Royal’s experience with photographers and may think silently ‘why bother wearing anything?’ Are we leaving the sane and the manageable to a world of fantasy with the only difference that this is not fantasy but quite real?


Sri Lanka

It is to the credit of Sri Lanka that as it planned to venture into nanotechnology, the whole segment of health and safety, environment and ethics were given due consideration from day one at least by having the topic listed along with others.

The National Science Foundation pursued realising support to establish a program on studying these aspects while the commercial-oriented main area of innovative research went on. IDRC Canada supported a regional project in this regard and Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan together started looking at the development of a regulatory framework for nanotechnology for each of the countries.  There is much less to copy – a practice that had brought in rules and regulations but without the local understanding in this particular sphere – as nanotechnology is nascent and societal applications still not a mainstream attraction. Consequences and ramifications need to be imagined rather than seen and attended to.

The particular project was a two-year activity and in March 2013 it is coming to a close and the work outputs contributed by all these groups need to be taken in by policy makers and authorities.

The pursuance of this goal of sustainability of efforts and developing over what is yielded is a necessity as we have plenty of examples of carrying out important projects only to forget at the end of external funding or with closure.  The concept of a ‘project’ in sri lanka has a certain time bound understanding and terms-of-references have become just that. It is quite sad to notice what people have done over the years in Sri Lanka as projects and then to see that someone again articulating that we need another project to address the same situation after some time.

The position of Sri Lanka is that it has been useful to embrace project-based activity and it may not be quite wrong to indicate that for some the living is ‘project based’ and we all may well look into a mirror as we say, write and read this!


Nano-enabled consumer products

In the consumer market, nano-enabled products are present and these are mostly value-added varieties and we are yet to witness a game-changing development in the market. Walk into some laboratories and the story is different and many ‘proofs-of-concepts’ exists.

One can identify about 1,300 common products ranging from a superior pair of socks to tennis balls in the consumer arena. Search the net and the list is present and with the global value of these operations. The temptations may well set in!

It has been stated that two to three nano-enabled products enter the market every week. It is also noted due to the world of opportunities that is presented by the term, marketing adoption of the word ‘nano’ too has been quite prolific. This means all what is stated to have the nano nametag need not necessarily be ‘nano-enabled’. That is where ethical marketing and communications are called for.

Ethics for technologies that converge at the nano scale today has the tag ‘nano ethics’ and much serious discourse in this regard has already taken place. Society needs to be aware of these developments and Sri Lankans should move away from the ‘island mentality’. The concept of islands belongs to the yesteryear.

The way to explore and use emerging nano is through intellect and not with force though force can very well be augmented quite spectacularly with ‘nano’. The world is going to tolerate less well the laggards as we move into ‘different times’. We must try to come to grips with the fact that we need much more progress than projects too!

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on

Recent columns