by Gregor Wolbring
October 15 , 2006

I recently met a traveller in the airport lounge in Frankfurt who worked in the forestry industry. We started talking, and he seemed interested in new technologies. In the end, I offered to write a column on nanoforestry for him. I must say I was surprised at the literature that already exists in this area and how little one hears about it. Whenever I mention the term I receive funny remarks. However a lot is going on.

A first International Conference on Nanotechnology for the Forest Products Industry took place in the United States last April. Talks included: "Bioinspired Nanotechnology: Green Chemistry and Sustainable Manufacturing," "Opportunities for Nanotechnology in Advancing Agenda 2020 Technology Platforms Panel," "What Else Might You Do With Nanofibrillar Cellulose Besides Make Nanocomposites?," "Advancing the Forest Biorefinery," "New Production Method for Nano Silica Sol and its Application for Papermaking," "Preparation of Biosilica-Enriched Filler and its Use in Nano-Particle Retention System," "Potentials and Avenues for Nanotechnology in Canadian Wood Products," "Forest Products Industry Nanotechnology Workshop Report European Perspective: NanoForest," and "Application of Nanotechnology in Pulp and Paper in Japan."

According to the Nanotechnology for the Forest Products Industry " Vision and Technology Roadmap, "potential uses for nanotechnology include developing intelligent wood -- and paperbased products with an array of nanosensors built in to measure forces, loads, moisture levels, temperature, pressure, chemical emissions, attack by wood decaying fungi, et cetera. Building functionality onto lignocellulosic surfaces at the nanoscale could open new opportunities for such things as pharmaceutical products, self-sterilizing surfaces, and electronic lignocellulosic devices. Use of nanodimensional building blocks will enable the assembly of functional materials and substrates with substantially higher strength properties, which will allow the production of lighter-weight products from less material and with less energy requirements. Significant improvements in surface properties and functionality will be possible, making existing products much more effective and enabling the development of many more new products. Nanotechnology can be used to improve processing of woodbased materials into a myriad of paper and wood products by improving water removal and eliminating rewetting; reducing energy usage in drying; and tagging fibers, flakes, and much research will be needed to move forward in this arena."

A lot of thought has already been given to this field without much public visibility.

A nanoforestry vision has been developed for Europe, and the Canadian report Nanotechnology: Implications for the Wood Products Industry includes a chart summarizing a range of wood performance issues, and potential impacts of nanotechnology advances. In addition to creating new wood products, nanotechnology and nanoretooling will have a major impact in other areas, including the production of biofuel.

Nanoforestry, NBICS and biofuels

Biofuel from biomass is seen as a renewable alternative to oil. Most biomass used for energy is plant derived. Plants produce biomass using energy from sunlight to combine water and carbon dioxide into sugars through photosynthesis. The sugars are then polymerised and/or combined with other chemicals to produce plant material. But which technologies will be used to create biofuel?

The keyword combination "genetically modified" and "biofuel" generates 343,000 hits in Google, and "nanotechnology" and "biofuel" produces 317,000, indicating that nanotechnology is rising in importance. A recent forest industry roadmap says that cell wall nanotechnology is a primary focus of nanoforestry, and that cellulose -- the building block of plant cell walls -- is key to developing biofuels. While genetic technology and biofuel are linked in the public consciousness, however, nanotechnology and biofuel are not.

The Choice is Yours

I want to make two main points in this column. First, there seems to be a disconnect between work on new technologies and their public visibility in applications of nanotechnology in forestry and biofuels, or synthetic biology in biofuels (where there is the potential to engineer bacteria to produce bacteriofuels, for example). Second, each application must consider many different technology options, their possible convergence, and their social and environmental impacts.

Whatever one decides, all participants in the discourse -- scientists, policy makers, funders, NGOs, and others -- must be more multifaceted in their analysis. Foresight exercises are needed to see what technologies and challenges may be on the horizon. The discourse on biofuel, for example, needs to answer three questions: (1) should we use it? (2) what technology or mixture of technologies should we use to produce it, if any? and (3) what social and environmental challenges does this pose?

Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, science and technology ethicist, disability/vari-ability studies scholar, and health policy and science and technology studies researcher at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; Member CAC/ISO - Canadian Advisory Committees for the International Organization for Standardization section TC229 Nanotechnologies; Member of the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and Member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, moderates a weblog for the International Network for Social Research on Diasbility, and authors a weblog on NBICS and its social implications.