academic environmental studies   macalester college
Environmental Studies

Directing the Invisible: Citizen Involvement in Nanotechnology


An Introduction to the Science

Discussing the Issue:

-With the Government

-With Business

-With the Military

A Specific Example: NanoFET

References & Links

Comments & questions to:

Directing the Invisible: Citizen Involvement in Nanotechnology

A Specific Example: NanoFET

            So far I have been mostly speaking in abstracts; now that we have established the primary forces behind the research and development of nanotechnology and have a basic understanding of what nanotechnology actually is, I would like to explore a specific example of developing nanotechnology, why citizens should be interested, and how they can get involved in directing its continued evolution. The example I will look at is one that I have not yet mentioned, called the nanoparticle field extraction thruster, or nanoFET.

nanoFET propulsion system 

NanoFET characteristic size scales (Image: University of Michigan Department of Aerospace Engineering)

 As described on Nanowerk’s March 26, 2007 spotlight, researchers at the University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory have created an experimentally successful model for a highly scaleable and finely adjustable propulsion and attitude-control system that requires no chemical reactants – the nanoFET. The ultimate objective of this research is to develop a single propulsion system with both power and utility to be used in future space-exploration missions, in lieu of the heavy, unwieldy chemical thrusters needed for take-off. A nanoFET could likely never be used for take-off, but its potential usefulness for precision flight in space is immense.

Though the finer electromechanical nuances behind the function of this device are somewhat complex – they are explained here - the basic idea is fairly simple: “create” nanoparticles, transmit them to an electrically conductive plate, thus giving the nanoparticles an induced charge, and use a series of increasingly powerful accelerations from electric fields through different mediums to launch the nanoparticles out of the thruster, generating thrust in the opposite direction.

            So, to look at the system of a nanoFET in holistic before-and-after terms, contained nanoparticle source + nanoFET propulsion hardware = nanoFET propulsion hardware with additional velocity + opposite velocity nanoparticle emissions. In practical terms, were nanoFETs every actually used in the field, these emissions would be a non-issue, as they would be emitted into the great vacuum of space, causing no calculably significant harm. However, before nanoFET technology could actually be used in the field, it would have to undergo a significant amount of testing, some of which may involve the release of high amounts of nanoparticulate matter into the atmosphere. As we have seen from Dr. Dai’s research, nanoparticles have the capability to enter human cells, and if large amounts were released without control, it is possible that they could cause serious harm to a person’s DNA, or have some other toxic effect. Furthermore, while some nanoparticles such as those of iron oxide have been deemed non-toxic by process of peer review and FDA evaluation, many others have extremely uncertain properties (Sands), and nanoFETs would take use of a wide variety of nanoparticles (Berger, Nanotechnology Propulsion…).

            The concern over nanoparticles’ radiation-like qualities is a severe one, although usually it is reserved more for products that may come into direct contact with the consumer. In, fact according to Professor Sands, certain suntan lotions with nanoparticulate components are likely about to fall under serious scrutiny for just this reason. But, given little knowledge of how the future tests of nanoFET may be conducted, nor of how the researchers plan to ensure the safety of these experiments, it is right and reasonable of a citizen to express concern, curiosity or even support to the researcher team that is – especially when that team is affiliated with and likely supported by NASA (Electric Propulsion), money from tax dollars allocated to it by the NNI.

            NanoFETs have great promise, but may also be very dangerous; if you are a citizen with a vested interest in NASA, or one who is concerned that space technology may be adapted to military or even commercial flight technology, or even one who lives nearby a potential testing facility, this is a technology which could seriously affect you. So how do you encourage a discussion that may yield constructive and informative results?

            The first step is to gather as much relative information about the technology as possible. In this case, one key place to look would be the website of University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics and Electronic Propulsion Laboratory. While the amount of specific information pertaining to planned research methods or locations may be somewhat lacking at any given moment – websites are maintained by people, after all, and people can make mistakes – the website could also provide you with many useful links to related research centers, or even the email addresses of involved professors. A sincere and friendly email to a professor asking for illumination on his area of research can sometimes return a thoughtful and detailed response, as in the case of my correspondence with Professor Sands. There is also a wealth of peer-reviewed material available through organizations like ICON, and because ICON has a particular focus towards maintaining environmentally safe nanotechnology, it will undoubtedly have documents concerning the potential toxicity of various types of nanoparticles. 

        After gathering this information, the citizen should ask himself what more he needs to know that he has so far been unable to learn, and determine who must be held accountable for the provision of this knowledge. In the case of nanoFET research at the University of Michigan, their website suggests that NASA and thus more generally the NNI provide at least a portion of their funding, so the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act should call for supplying a strong citizen demand for information. Examination of the Michigan legislation, should it reveal any allocation of funds to the University research, would give a concerned citizenry grounds for holding their state government responsible for disseminating specifics of the research as well.

Of course, there is always the possibility that, after thoroughly looking over the available materials, an interested and now-educated citizen may find that there is absolutely nothing to be concerned about. In this case, I would encourage the citizen to send a researcher a friendly email of support, but encourage them both to keep their eyes glued to developing related research, as the field of nanotechnology is changing almost daily – including, of course, its dangers. As citizens of a country whose government has a declared goal of being the world-leader in nanotechnology, it is imperative that we stay abreast of the benefits and hazards of the science, and work towards directing these invisible marvels towards a future that both scientists and lay people can feel safe with.


Last updated:  5/02/2007


Macalester College · 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA · 651-696-6000
Comments and questions to