Governor Cuomo’s Big Nano-Adventure: New York Wins $4.4-Billion Nanotech Investment, But Is It Sustainable?

"This unprecedented private investment in New York's economy will create thousands of jobs." -- Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, September 27, 2011

New York has emerged victorious in its bid to secure a landmark private investment from five of the world's leading technology firms that will bring USD 4.4 billion of private funds into developing the state's nanotechnology sector, defeating bids from nations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It was a huge win for the Empire State, which has been struggling with an unemployment rate that has been stuck between 8 and 9 percent since early 2009. "These companies could have gone anywhere on the globe," said New York's governor Andrew Cuomo at the New York Open for Business Statewide Conference in Albany on Tuesday.

The companies in the deal are: Intel, the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer, based in Santa Clara, California; IBM, the technology giant based in Armonk, New York, which is America's 7th most profitable company; Samsung, a multinational conglomerate corporation based in Seoul, Korea; GlobalFoundries, the world's third largest independent semiconductor foundry, created by the divestiture of AMD's manufacturing arm, based in Milpitas, California; and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world's first dedicated semiconductor foundry, based in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

"This unprecedented private investment in New York's economy will create thousands of jobs and make the state the epicenter for the next generation of computer chip technology," said Governor Cuomo. New York state will not fund any business, but if jobs are being created, it will invest an additional USD 400 million in the College of Nanoscale Science Engineering at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Albany over a 5-year period, including USD 100 million for energy efficiency and low cost energy allowances. The governor said that one of the state's primary goals is to build "regional, sustainable, public/private partnership, build on assets forge strategic alliances with measurable goals that create jobs."

GOOD NEWS FOR THE ECONOMY, BUT IS NANOTECH SUSTAINABLE?

Nanotechnology is revolutionary. There are many practical applications that can help human health, including advancements in drug delivery and lab-on-a-chip technology. But is it sustainable? Dr. Andrew Maynard, the director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, says that while "nanotechnology has great potential...there may be unanticipated roadblocks, including unexpected risk to
human health and the environment."

The one thing about nanomaterials that makes them so useful is also the thing that makes them potentially dangerous: They are as small as molecules, even atoms, and thus they can enter humans and animals and interact with internal bodily systems and molecular functions. Unsurprisingly, nanotechnology has fueled a new chapter in doomsday predictions. The fears are not unfounded. After all, the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were built on theories about the destructive power that could be generated when atoms are split apart.

BEWARE THE GREY GOO

In his 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, American engineer and molecular nanotech pioneer Dr. K. Eric Drexler introduced the term "gray goo" to describe a hypothetical doomsday scenario in which life on Earth was annihilated by an accidental and uncontrollable spread of "replicating assemblers," life-like molecular machines that "will be able to build all that ribosomes can...able to do all that life can, and more." Drexler contends that "from an evolutionary point of view, this poses an obvious threat to otters, people, cacti and ferns -- to the rich fabric of the biosphere and all that we prize."

In order to prevent such a scenario, the Foresight Institute, a Palo Alto, California-based non-profit think tank focused on transformative future technologies founded by Drexler, recommends that nanomachines are made to be dependent on "a single artificial fuel source or artificial 'vitamins' that doesn't exist in any natural environment.

"Imagine such a replicator floating in a bottle of chemicals, making copies of itself," writes Drexler. "The first replicator assembles a copy in one thousand seconds, the two replicators then build two more in the next thousand seconds, the four build another four, and the eight build another eight. At the end of ten hours, there are not thirty-six new replicators, but over 68 billion. In less than a day, they would weigh a ton; in less than two days, they would outweigh the Earth; in another four hours, they would exceed the mass of the Sun and all the planets combined -- if the bottle of chemicals hadn't run dry long before."

Governor Cuomo deserves praise for his success in bringing such a big private investment to develop an emerging technology in his state. Hopefully, the nanobots that are created in New York’s new nanolabs will be made with Dr. Drexler's warnings in mind. The only things that anyone wants replicating from the nanotech sector are solutions, jobs and dollars.

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NOTES

http://www.governor.ny.gov/press/092711chiptechnologyinvestment
http://www.labor.ny.gov/stats/laus_sa.xls
http://www.livestream.com/newyorkstateofficeofthegovernor/video?clipId=pla_a129de6b-60e1-4e98-baad-580e41e52fea
Ibid., 1.
http://www.nanotechproject.org/process/files/2741/18_nanotechnologyhumanhealthimpactframeworkstrategicresearch.pdf
Drexler, K. Eric. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), p. 173.
http://www.etcgroup.org/upload/publication/171/01/thebigdown.pdf
Ibid., 6, p. 58.

image: Buckminsterfullerene C60, also known as the “buckyball,” is a representative member of fullerenes, a family of carbon molecules which have major technological implications in the field of nanotechnology. (credit: Michael Ströck, Wikimedia Commons)