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You Say Yes, I Say Nano

Febbraio 2009
Le nanotecnologie rivoluzioneranno la nostra vita quotidiana. Ma la manipolazione della materia a livelli infinitamente piccoli può anche rivelarsi molto pericolosa. I pro e i contro.

di William Sutton

File audio:

Speakers: Mark Worden, Justin Ratcliffe (Standard British accent)

What is nanotechnology and why is everyone so excited about it?
At minute levels, ordinary materials change their properties: colour, strength and conductivity. Nanotechnology makes carbon nanotubes 100 times stronger than steel; it turns red wine into white, makes beetroot juice transparent, and replaces milk lactose with other sugars.

It sounds like science fiction.

Do you remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? In the Roald Dahl story Willy Wonka’s chewing gum tastes like a three-course dinner. Do you remember the miniature bio-mission in the 1960s film Fantastic Voyage? Or the replicator in Star Trek that creates anything you want? Nanoscience promises to turn such science fiction into science fact, revolutionising food, clothing, health and manufacturing.

Can scientists really change the flavour of food?

Yes. Researchers are creating consumer-designed drinks. You choose purple, caffeine, strawberry flavour; microwaves release the relevant chemicals from nanocapsules; other ingredients pass through your body unused.
Chefs will one day design food at molecular level, prolonging fragile herbal flavours, to complement your wine and release tastes at the right moment.
Food will be healthier. Samsung fridges kill bacteria with nanosilver. Brewers and dairies remove micro-organisms and viruses with nanofilters. Unilever hopes nanoencapsulation will produce ice cream with 1 per cent fat instead of 15 per cent.

How can nanoscience affect clothing?

An Oxford company coats fabric with durable waterproof nanoparticles, while Cornell University scientists designed garments that prevent colds and never need washing. “This is one of the first times nanotechnology has entered the fashion world,” says Professor Juan Hinestroza. It doesn’t come cheap, though: nanocotton costs $10,000 per square metre.

What about nanotech’s impact on health?

It’s staggering. Miniature processors make artificial body parts viable: inner ears, retinas, even nerves. Soon nanosensors will monitor diabetics’ blood sugar, call ambulances for the sick and elderly, and assess body damage for sportsmen and soldiers.
To replace surgical procedures, Japanese scientists have developed a 2cm electronic beetle with camera, forceps and drug injector.
Chemotherapy’s side effects have always been risky, but nanoencapsulation delivers lethal poisons directly to tumours. Other nanoparticles infiltrate tumours, and are then heated by infra-red to cauterise cancers.
Ultimately, nanocapsules could deliver medicines to any part of the body.

Are there any dangers?
We simply don’t know the risks. Supporters of nanotech insist that it is natural, uses no new substances (just old ones smaller) and promises astonishing benefits.
Others disagree. Particles smaller than 100nm can cross the body’s barriers, entering cells and bloodstream. Metals that kill nanobacteria are being developed for food packaging; but what if they go from the packaging and enter our bodies?  “Free nanoparticles inhaled can go straight to the brain,” says Dr Qasim Chaudhry of the UK Central Science Laboratory. “Do the benefits outweigh the risks?”
Animal studies show that nanoparticles may cause inflammation similar to that caused by asbestos.
“Nanoparticles are highly reactive,” reports the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. “It is not yet clear whether they have a toxic impact on the body.”

What’s next?

By 2014, over $2 trillion will be spent on consumer nanotech worldwide, if it is not rejected by the public. With consumers suspicious of industry’s profiteering, it may become as controversial as Genetically Modified products. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Violet Beauregarde grabbed Willy Wonka’s chewing gum. He warned her that it was still being tested. So whose fault was it that she turned purple and blew up like a balloon?


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Glossary

a minute levels - a livelli minuscoli.

strength - forza, resistenza.

steel - acciaio.

beetroot juice - succo di barbabietola.

science fiction - fantascienza.

a three-course dinner - una cena di tre portate.

Fantastic Voyage - Viaggio allucinante.

purple - (colore) viola.

strawberry flavour - gusto di fragola.

microwaves - microonde.

release tastes - emanare i sapori.

healthier - più sano.

brewers and dairies - i produttori di birra e di latticini.

coats fabric with ... waterproof nanoparticles - riveste la stoffa con nanoparticelle impermeabili.

garments that prevent colds - capi di abbigliamento che prevengono i raffreddori.

it doesn’t come cheap - non è economico.

it’s staggering - è impressionante.

viable - fattibili.

inner ears - orecchie interne.

the sick and elderly - i malati e gli anziani.

assess body damage - valutano i danni fisici.

to replace surgical procedures - in sostituzione delle procedure chirurgiche.

beetle - cimice.

camera, forceps and drug injector - macchina fotografica, pinza e siringa.

astonishing benefits - vantaggi incredibili.

others disagree - altri non sono d’accordo.

cells and blood-stream - cellule e circolazione sanguigna.

inhaled - inalate.

do the benefits outweigh the risks? - i vantaggi sono maggiori dei rischi?

asbestos - amianto.

with consumers suspicious of industry’s profiteering - con i consumatori che non si fidano di un’industria in cerca di profitti.

grabbed - afferrò, portò via.

warned her - la avvertì.

whose fault was it - di chi è stata la colpa.