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Security, Technology, Innovation

The Applications and Implications of Nanotechnology

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Blended translucent images of dna strands, molecules and technology

Last month, the FBI announced charges against two Chinese military officers for infiltrating into the U.S. under false identities to steal U.S. intellectual property. Interestingly, in this instance their target was not proprietary information or U.S. military plans; instead, the spies hoped to glean insight into Harvard’s basic research in the field of nanoscience. This incident highlights that winning the future requires more than just the technologies du jour like AI and hypersonics; even more valuable is the foundational science that underpins these technologies. Unfortunately, nanotechnology and other basic sciences are often excluded from the conversation on emerging technologies.  

This article provides an overview of nanotechnology, its applications, and its implications for national security. It then outlines general policy recommendations to mitigate the threats posed by nanotechnology.

Nanotech as an Emerging Technology

Nanoscience is a subfield of physics dealing with measuring 1-100 nanometers. These are extraordinarily small particles: a printed version of this essay would be about 100,000 nanometers thick. Greater understanding of this subfield has led to the advent of nanotechnology - engineering processes and tools that allow the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. Nanotechnology allows humans to play with the building blocks of the universe, exploiting the laws of quantum mechanics to construct materials with unimaginable precision - literally molecule by molecule. Nanotechnology has the potential for revolutionary advancements in fields from metallurgy and medicine to military power.

Advances in nanotechnology are deeply intertwined with other technologies, many of which have received far greater attention. Nanotechnology will have applications for other technologies like gene-editing, additive manufacturing (3-D printing), artificial intelligence, spacecraft, and quantum computing. However, nanotechnology’s unique properties and processes merit greater attention from the policy community. Narrow policies that treat nano-applications on an ad-hoc basis will not address the unique characteristics and challenges of nanotechnology itself. As one expert has observed, “Nanoparticles are far more reactive and unpredictable than normal chemical/biological particles, but countries do not appreciate this...regulations that offer any meaningful not always recognize nanotechnology as a new field with unique challenges.”

The bottom line is that nanotechnology will not only accelerate existing threats, it will create novel and more complex threats. Greater understanding of nanotech, both within government and among the general public, is necessary to spur a more proactive policy framework.

Applications: Biochem, Bots, Bytes

Because most important biological processes occur at the nanoscale, nanotechnology will improve - and perhaps revolutionize - chemical/biological (CB) weapons capabilities. Nanotechnology will make CB agents easier to produce and transport. Far smaller amounts of the agents would need to be made, and this would require only small, low-level facilities, making detection more difficult. This will greatly hinder counter-proliferation and counter-WMD operations, as it will be increasingly difficult to detect and disrupt the creation or transfer of nano-enabled agents, whether by terrorist organizations or state actors. Moreover, identification and attribution of nanoparticles poses unique difficulties, which would hinder response to an attack.

The convergence of nanotechnology, synthetic biology (i.e gene-editing), and chemistry will allow the creation of novel agents and enhance the resilience and lethality of existing agents. It will be possible to edit bacterial DNA to create entirely new organisms, or to build new chemicals from the ground up. NT could also enhance the toxicity of inorganic chemicals, because the large surface area of nanoparticles makes them especially toxic. Finally, nanotechnology will enable new delivery systems and methods to avoid medical countermeasures. For example, nanotubes could be used to deliver only the lethal parts of the anthrax virus- without the signature protein that is recognizable to the immune system. Just as concerning, nanotechnology will improve processes of encapsulation and aeresolization of lethal organisms. As one report summarized it, nano-chem-bio applications will “go beyond the weaponisation of pathogens or toxic substances, such as the creation of ineffective vaccines…enhancement of the virulence and pathogenicity of micro-organisms, augmentation of macro-organisms vulnerability to infectious diseases; and creation of diagnostic impediments.”

Nanotechnology will have applications beyond chemical/biological weapons to include the domains of cyber, robotics, and additive manufacturing. First, nanotech will lead to rapid improvements in quantum computing and artificial intelligence. Second, the ability to manipulate matter at the near-atomic level will yield highly precise and efficient manufacturing processes. Lightweight, durable, and cheap metal created by nanomanufacturing will have a variety of military uses, especially in space. Finally, nanomanufacturing techniques will augment 3-D printing, making complex and scalable designs readily accessible. Already, scientists have produced primitive “molecular motors” and other nanomachines.

Threats: Terrorists and Tyrants

There are three distinct threats posed by nanotechnology. First, the diffusion of nanotech may increase the likelihood of nano-enabled bioterrorism. Nanotechnology is becoming increasingly cheap and user-friendly. “Do-It-Yourself” nanotechnology hardware and open-source instructions are readily available online. For example, one site provides instructions for building a DNA nanotechnology lab for under $500. Another site advertises nanotechnology experiments for the whole family, ages 4 and up. This “democratization” of nanotech creates more opportunities for bad actors to engineer weapons (from “the comfort of your own home!” as the site advertises). Second, nanotechnology will make it easier for state actors to develop or use advanced CB weapons. Nanotech will make these weapons cheaper to produce and easier to conceal and transport, which will facilitate their proliferation to rogue states. Furthermore, existing national and international laws designed to prevent the spread of dangerous chemicals may be unable to keep pace with the rapid changes brought on by nanotech. Third, the potential for new nano-enabled capabilities may accelerate arms races and undermine strategic stability between the U.S. and its authoritarian great power competitors. Militaries around the world are already fielding expensive - and secretive - research and development programs to harness the technology’s potential. This risks offense-defense spirals that could make war more likely - and bloodier if it occurs.

Challenges: Blurred Lines


Perhaps the greatest challenge to nanotech regulation is its potential as a dual-use good. Many nanotechnologies will have both civilian and military purposes. The same techniques used to create life-saving pharmaceuticals can also be used to create deadly poisons. Crafting policy to prevent misuse without restricting innovation is a major challenge for governance. National governments are hesitant to enact strict controls for fear of dampening the economic and societal benefits of the technology.

Even explicitly military applications are dual-use in that they have both offensive and defensive purposes. This is problematic because most arms control initiatives include provisions allowing research and development of dual-use technology for peaceful or defensive purposes. As legal scholar Robert Pinson writes, “the list of purposes allowed as exceptions...encompass almost every predicted use of nanotechnology.” For example, medicinal applications may easily be adapted for offensive purposes, and the difference between a defensive countermeasure and a counter-countermeasure is largely one of intent.

Scientific Uncertainty

The high degree of scientific uncertainty surrounding nanotechnology will make it difficult to incorporate into the arms control framework. “A central hurdle in attempting to evaluate nanotech’s potential impact on national security and competitiveness is that there is neither a consensual definition of what constitutes nanotechnology or even the nanoscale, nor, as a result, comparable and reliable data and metrics for measuring it,” observed one study. There is a dearth of scientific and economic data for nanotechnology, most importantly its toxicology, environmental impact, economic value, and the feasibility of its applications. This compounds the dual-use conundrum: Because regulation is primarily about risk management, the high degree of uncertainty regarding nanotech makes it difficult to establish a framework for protecting against potential danger without stifling economic and scientific progress.

Furthermore, there is no recognized definition of nanotechnology. One of the most popular definitions is based on size (between 1 to 100 nanometers). This approach is taken by the EU and the International Organization for Standardization. However, this range is somewhat arbitrary – the closer a substance gets to 1nm, the more it will exhibit unique quantum properties. Some countries, like the U.S, have adopted definitions based on these unique properties, rather than solely on size.

The issue of scientific uncertainty is not merely academic. The lack of data and definition is really a lack of an appropriate conceptual framework for nanotechnology that hinders governance at the national and international level. Lucas Bradley’s analysis of several national regulatory schemes illustrates the problem: In the UK chemical regulatory scheme, he writes that regulations “address chemicals of the same type equally, even if one of these chemicals has a unique nanostructure and could behave unpredictably...Laws in Australia, Japan, and the United States compound these problems; chemical regulations focus on ‘new chemicals.’ Many novel nanoparticles are not defined as ‘new chemicals,’ and so the existing chemical regulations tasked with controlling them do not govern them nor have any jurisdiction over their deployment.” This same problem carries over to the international level. A major hurdle to international regulation of nanotech is disagreement over what exactly is being regulated; nanotech does not fit neatly into the traditional conceptual “boxes” of arms control (for example, what constitutes a chemical weapon, or a WMD, WMD, chemical weapons, etc.).

Rapid Emergence and Convergence

Finally, nanotechnology is emerging and converging with other science-technologies at breakneck speed, and the rapid advancement of the technology may outpace existing legal and policy responses. In the near-term, interactions between nanotechnology and other sciences will produce incremental or exponential improvements to existing weapons, blurring the conceptual lines on which arms control and regulatory laws are traditionally based. There are endless combinations of nano-bio-chem-conventional capabilities that, while not revolutionary, could fall between the gaps and seams of the patchwork regulatory regime.

As an example, Pinson considers the Chemical Weapons Convention: Many nanoweapons would meet the CWC’s criteria to be regulated as a “toxic chemical,” he writes, regardless of how they were created or their specific physical properties. However, the CWC would likely not apply to nanoweapons designed to attack machines or other inorganic objects, as they would not cause the requisite “death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals.” This is problematic, because nano-weapons could still cause mass destruction (or at least disruption) by attacking physical infrastructure.

Another illustrative case, articulated by Anne Clunan and Kirsten Rodine-Hardy, is that of the Australia Group (AG), an international forum to prevent the export of products that could be used to produce chemical weapons. The AGs technology annex contains no mention of nanotechnology, nor does it contain a single nano-enabled product. The Wassennaar Arrangement, a forum similar to the AG, compares only slightly better, with 2 nano-products: nanocrystalline alloy strips and nano-imprint lithography tools (neither of which has anything to do with the production of chemical or biological weapons).

These examples highlight the challenge of adapting legal and policy frameworks at the speed of technology. As Pinson points out, the current legal regime “was not written with nanotech in mind. Therefore, manipulating the language to attempt to fit nanotechnology is inappropriate - and often awkward.”


Within the policy community, proposals for “holistic approaches” and “public-private partnerships” have become somewhat clichéd placeholders for tangible solutions. However unsatisfying these may be, they do convey an important message: the future of technology regulation will not be a top-down, government-to-government exchange. Government should certainly take the lead in preventing worst-case scenarios - terrorism, arms races and war - but effective regulation of emerging technology, including nanotech, will require dynamic combinations of hard and soft law measures (that is, enforceable laws and nonbinding norms of behavior). Government’s main role should be as a catalyst and coordinator, encouraging and empowering networks of stakeholders from the scientific community, private industry, and academia.

The first step is to foster the creation of epistemic communities to establish a foundation of shared knowledge around nanotechnology as a unique field. To this end, the United Nations could create an international working group on military nanotechnology. Through this forum, the scientific community could establish a universal definition of nanotechnology, and engage in rigorous, collaborative data collection to better understand the costs, benefits, and risks of the technology. Developing a working concept of nanotechnology will lay the groundwork for better harmonization at the international level.

Export controls will help prevent the proliferation of the most dangerous nano capabilities to terrorist organizations or rogue states. With a baseline of consensual knowledge and understanding of the risks posed by nanotechnology, national governments can begin coordinating their regulatory strategies. This may entail expanding the annexes of the Australia Group and similar entities to include broader categories of nanotechnologies. Alternatively, given the sluggishness of existing export control regimes, an entirely new regime may be required to deal with the unique exigencies of emerging technology.

Additionally, states could update and strengthen existing international law to prevent the production or use of nano-enabled biological or chemical agents. The most important starting point would be the BWC and CWC. Updating the annexes of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions to capture a broader range of nano-enabled agents would ensure the treaties’ continued legal applicability. More important but less likely would be the addition of a robust verification and enforcement regime to give the treaties real “teeth.”

Some experts have proposed that the U.S. and China mitigate the risk of arms racing and strategic instability by promoting greater transparency in research and development programs. Although the current strategic environment is unfavorable for any such agreement, there may be merit to an international dialogue, if only to try to manage the greatest dangers of nanotech, such as militarized “nano-bots” or nonconsensual biological alteration.

To be sure, there is no “silver bullet” solution to the challenges posed by nanotechnology and other emerging technologies, and navigating the uncertain future will be difficult. However, these challenges are neither insurmountable nor unprecedented. It is worth remembering that the arms control regimes now viewed as cumbersome and outmoded were, in fact, innovative solutions to technologies that were, at the time, revolutionary and unprecedented. It is well within our power to harness the promise and mitigate the peril of nanotechnology.


About the Author: 

Nicholas Winstead is a graduate student in the School of International Service at American University. He is currently working towards his masters degree in the Foreign Policy and National Security program.  

*The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Center or any other person or entity at American University.