"When you look at the list, you will not see sunscreen or nanopants," Peter Singer, director of the University of Toronto's center for bioethics, told UPI's Nano World. "Rather, it's about energy, water, food and health. The real question we wanted to answer is whether nanotechnology will help just the 600 million people in the industrialized world or whether it could also benefit the 5 billion people in the developing world."
Singer and colleagues asked 63 nanotech experts -- including 38 from developing countries -- to suggest and then vote on how the field might address urgent global problems, such as extreme poverty and hunger, child mortality, environmental degradation, malaria, AIDS, and other infectious diseases.
The highest-ranked nanotech application by far was energy storage, production and conversion.
"Without a cheap and non-contaminating source of energy, it's difficult to implement the other nine categories on the list," said survey team member Fabio Salamanca-Buentello.
For example, semiconductor crystals known as quantum dots can boost the efficiency of solar cells, he explained, and added carbon nanotubes, which are stronger than steel, could help store hydrogen, a clean and plentiful energy source that must be contained at very high pressure and thus requires extraordinarily strong vessels.
"With carbon nanotubes, you can store hydrogen using much less material, and they can be portable, which is very important in developing countries," Salamanca-Buentello told Nano World.
Ranking second on the list was agricultural productivity enhancement. Nanoporous minerals known as zeolites, when mixed with fertilizer and animal fodder, gather nutrients in their pores, releasing them more slowly and allowing them to be absorbed more efficiently, "so you need less fertilizer and cattle feed," Salamanca-Buentello said. Also, nanosensors sprayed on crops could help farmers monitor crop health.
The third item was water treatment and remediation. "Immediately after the tsunami (the deadly series of waves that hit Indonesia, southern Asia and eastern Africa on Dec. 26), you saw Canada and other developed countries send huge tanks to desalinate water, and the thing is, there are nanofilters that can desalinate water and purify water of bacteria and viruses much more efficiently and with much less volume," Salamanca-Buentello said.
He noted that Brazilian researchers have been working on nanomagnets that can be sprayed onto oil spills and separate the oil from the water, cleaning up pollution and permitting re-use of both commodities.
Fourth was disease screening and diagnosis, such as labs-on-a-chip, which can use just a drop of a patient's blood to conduct a sophisticated battery of clinical tests.
"You wouldn't need a complex hospital in remote areas," Salamanca-Buentello said.
Ranked No. 5 were drug-delivery nanosystems.
"There are many diseases in the developing world, like tuberculosis or HIV, that require lots of medications and, frankly, very, very responsible patients that take these medications at certain times in the day. If we can design an intelligent drug-delivery system that can release drugs at the right time in a single dose and last a long time, that would be much better," Salamanca-Buentello said. "Similarly, there are nanocoatings that prolong the shelf life of medications that prevent humidity or other weather factors from altering the medications."
The same technology, ranked sixth, could improve food processing and storage.
"With very thin nanofilms, you can do away with the need for refrigerators and therefore distribute food to wider populations, even in remote areas, which is one of the biggest problems in developing countries," Salamanca-Buentello said.
Seventh was air-pollution clean-up -- for example, embedding titanium-dioxide nanoparticles in sidewalks or house paint that, in the presence of sunlight, catalyze the breakdown of several pollutants.
"You can have a whole city decontaminating air pollution and take care of the scourge of several developing countries," Salamanca-Buentello said.
Eighth was improved construction materials for cheaper, stronger housing.
"For shelter, think about supertents -- fancy versions of those pop-up trailers, but with inflatable walls with great insulation and soundproofing, and a full kit of other light and easily transported stuff," said development sociologist Bryan Bruns with the Foresight Institute in Palo Alto., Calif.
"Similar technologies could provide better shelter not just for refugees, but for poor people in slums and villages," Bruns told Nano World.
Health-monitoring applications ranked ninth. They could help patients monitor key signs, such as glucose or cholesterol levels, "so patients with diabetes or heart disease can keep track of their body, 24-7," Salamanca-Buentello said.
Tenth and last on the list was pest detection and control, including improved pesticides and insect repellents.
"Many developing countries still have strong rural economies, and these pests are devastating for the whole populations of these countries," Salamanca-Buentello said.
The experts settled on the Top 10 list after reviewing more than 80 applications they had proposed.
"Most of the things you would see in a list from the developed world were (omitted) -- for instance, the overwhelming amount of our panelists didn't even mention defense applications, let alone rank them," Salamanca-Buentello said. "In the Top 20 ... were applications such as data storage or communication technologies, which doesn't mean research groups in developing countries shouldn't pursue them, but if there are national initiatives, it would be nice if they saw these priorities."
Singer said Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has suggested devoting 5 percent of the country's research and development budget to technologies that would help the developing world.
"If every industrialized country pitched in, we could see $50 billion for emerging technologies in emerging markets. This helps prioritize ... global efforts in the developed world, including those of companies, and also helps prioritize the activities of nanotechnology programs in the developing world. Countries don't use science because they're rich. They become rich because they use science. Nanotechnology is a wave of science that needs to be harnessed by the developing world."
Singer and colleagues have proposed a global effort to accelerate the achievement of these 10 applications modeled after the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, launched last year by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Foundation for the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The groups published their findings in the April issue of the journal Public Library of Science Medicine.
Nano World is a weekly series examining the exploding field of nanotechnology, by Charles Choi, who covers research and technology for UPI Science News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org