Soft Nanotechnology

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Physics and Astronomy


Very large molecules / macromolecules / are all around us. They are what plastics are made of, and they also are the major components in glues and paints. A huge industry has grown up to make these synthetic macromolecules, or polymers, for use in plastics. These materials are ubiquitous, and useful, but their applications are not very sophisticated / we see plastics used in packaging, for casings, and for cheap everyday items. But macromolecules are also what make living things work. Biological macromolecules, like proteins and DNA, are not simple structural materials like plastic. Instead, they are the building blocks for the sophisticated but tiny machines that perform life's functions. They store and read genetic information, in plants they use the sun's energy to fuel chemical processes, they form the motors that make our muscles work. Why can't we use our artificial macromolecules in these more sophisticated ways, ways that exploit the properties of individual molecules to make highly efficient machines?The first thing we need is to be able to make molecules that are more complicated than the ones that make up simple plastics like polythene. Synthetic polymer chemistry now permits us to start to do this; we are seeing macromolecules being made that can conduct electricity or interact with light, we can make macromolecules with complicated structures, with different chemical sections joined together according to a predetermined plan. Remarkably, this molecular plan can determine how many molecules arrange themselves; the molecules themselves carry a blueprint which dictates the structures that they form, through a process known as self-assembly . What we now need to do is to understand how to use these sophisticated molecules to do things. Our first efforts will be very crude; we can make a macromolecule attached to a surface change shape, which would allow us to attach or release another molecule. We can design molecule-based systems that can generate forces and propel themselves. We can use our knowledge of the way polymer molecules arrange themselves, particularly when they are in the form of very thin films, to learn how to make more efficient polymer-based solar cells. As we learn more about the details of the way the molecular machines of biology work, and our own ability to synthesise and manipulate synthetic macromolecules grows, we can hope to make molecular machines of greater and greater sophistication.


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Description The research funded on this grant explored the fundamental properties of macromolecules near interfaces and in thin film. We were able to identify and characterise a number of phenomena - such as surface segregation and surface driven phase separation, responsiveness of end-tethered polymers, and crystallisation in thin films - which are of fundamental interest in themselves, but which are also of importance in applications such as plastic electronics, organic photovoltaics and smart surfaces.
Exploitation Route Many of the papers we have published have been extensively cited, indicating a significant impact on the world-wide academic community in this area. Through our industrial contacts the insights gained may influence the development of products.
Sectors Chemicals,Electronics,Energy,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description A new project funded by Innovate UK and Akzo-Nobel uses some of the ideas generated to create new kinds of pigment that are cheaper and have a much lower carbon footprint than existing materials.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Chemicals
Impact Types Economic

Description Commission of the European Communities
Amount £355,883 (GBP)
Funding ID ICARUS 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Description Commission of the European Communities
Amount £355,883 (GBP)
Funding ID ICARUS 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 12/2009 
End 11/2013
Description Public engagement around nanotechnology 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Jones has been involved in many science communication activities around nanotechnology since publishing a popular science book on the subject in 2004 (Soft Machines, nanotechnology and life, OUP), including lectures, Café Scientifiques and schools visits. He has maintained a blog ( concentrating on nanotechnology, public engagement and science policy, which has now accumulated 440 posts since it was begun in 2004, and currently attracts an average of 43,000 visits a month. He has written extensively in other media - some examples from the assessment period are given below. Since 2005 he has been involved in many 2-way public dialogue events, including Nanojury UK and the Nanodialogues. He chaired the Nanotechnology Engagement Group, a body set up by UK Government to support the development of best practice in public engagement around nanotechnologies, and to ensure that public engagement feeds into policy and decision-making. Between June 2007 and 2009 he was Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology at EPSRC, and in this capacity acted both as the public face for research council funded nanotechnology in the UK and worked with the research council to implement their nanotechnology strategy, which included an important role for public engagement. As Strategic Advisor, he was centrally involved in the commissioning of a public dialogue on nanomedicine, which was a highly innovative use of public engagement to inform science policy.

Specific examples of ways in which this engagement activity has had an impact on the awareness, attitudes and understanding of the public include:

1. More realistic depictions of the future of nanotechnology, contra grey goo and nanobots
Jones's research - with its emphasis on understanding the profound difference between the nanoscale design principles of cell biology and human scale engineering - gave him the perspective needed to write what remains the most comprehensive and widely circulated critique of the popular, negative vision of nanotechnology. "Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture", appeared in the June 2008 edition of the US popular engineering magazine, IEEE Spectrum (300,000 circulation worldwide). This counteracted the popular depiction of nanotechnology in the media, and in films, video games and comics, which derives from a particular vision of the future of the technology popularised by K. Eric Drexler. It is this vision of nanotechnology as conventional engineering scaled down to molecular scales that underlies popular tropes such as the idea of "grey goo" and medical "nanobots".

2. Informing the public debate about nanotechnology in consumer products
Jones's public engagement activities have aimed at informing the public debate on nanotechnology, presenting a balanced assessment of the science giving due weight to real risks and hazards, to help avoid a consumer backlash similar to that observed with GM foods. One particularly important theme of this has been the need to distinguish between engineering nanoparticles and self-assembled nanoparticles (of the kind studied in Jones's own research), which have quite different risk profiles. An example of Jones's popular writing on nanotechnology setting this general context was an article in BBC Focus Magazine July 2008 (73,600 circulation). More reactive examples include a BBC Radio 5 live interview on 12 November 2008, setting a report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in context. When a paper was published on 20 May 2008 demonstrating the potential for some carbon nanotubes to have toxic effects analogous to those of asbestos, Jones briefed Research Councils about the forthcoming paper allowing them to prepare well-considered positions to the news when it emerged, and provided comments for the Science Media Centre, who summed up the resulting extensive press interest thus: "despite the potential for a huge scare story the majority of coverage represented the research fairly." (email from Helen Jamison, Senior Press Officer, Science Media Centre, 22 May 2008).

Jones had a sustained involvement with the consumer group Which? during a campaign about the use of nanotechnology in consumer products. He supplied background information, and was extensively quoted, in an article in Jan 2008 in Which? Magazine (circulation around 1.2 million), and was the scientific consultant for another article in November 2008, focusing specifically on cosmetics. Which? ran a Citizen's Jury on Nanotechnology, for which Jones acted on the steering group and appeared in person as a witness; he was a panel member, together with the Science Minister, at the public event that launched the results.

In the potentially very sensitive area of the use of nanotechnology in food, Jones was the only academic invited to a round table at CIAA (Confederation of the food and drink industries of the EU) on 19 September 2008. This involved food manufacturers, leading NGOs, European Commission. Jones spoke at a House of Lords Seminar on Nanotechnology on 4 November 2008, and gave both oral (30 June 2009) and written evidence to a subsequent House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee on Nanotechnologies and Food. One area that Jones highlighted was the importance of nanostructures and nanoparticles in food that are naturally occurring or result from traditional food processing techniques (see final report paras 5.27-5.32) resulting in the recommendation 14 "We recommend that, for regulatory purposes, any definition of 'nanomaterials' should exclude those created from natural food substances, except for nanomaterials that have been deliberately chosen or engineered to take advantage of their nanoscale properties." This recommendation was accepted by government
(Final Report, Jan 2010:, Government response:, March 2010).

Causality, of course, is very difficult to prove, but it is notable that early fears of a GM style campaign against nanotechnology in the UK have not materialised, and major NGOs in the UK have not come out in blanket opposition to the technology. For example, Greenpeace UK states (, accessed 6/9/2013) "Greenpeace does not have a stance on nanotechnology as a whole, because the applications will be too diverse There may be some very beneficial uses of nanotechnology.") .

In contrast, a series of public debates on nanotechnology in France in 2010 had to be abandoned because of disruptive protests and nanotechnology labs in in Mexico have been the subject of bombing attacks

Influence on science policy nationally and internationally
As nanotechnology senior strategic advisor, and with the strong support of EPSRC's Societal Issues Panel, Jones was central to the commissioning, implementation and use of a major multi-site public engagement exercise as part of the framing of Nanomedicine Grand Challenge - the Nanomedicine Dialogue. This was an important and innovative experiment in the incorporation of public engagement in science policy. The current EPSRC Nanotechnology Landscape Document ( states:
"The RS/RAEng report highlighted the importance of public engagement in this area, and this has led to a number of activities coordinated by Task Force 5 of the NRCG. EPSRC has involved its researchers in 2 public dialogues about nanotechnology, the latest of which fed public views and aspirations into the development of the Nanotechnology Grand Challenge in healthcare. This was groundbreaking in using the results of the public dialogue to help inform the choice of research area. This area benefits from having Professor Richard Jones as an ambassador for broader engagement. The public acceptability of research and nano products can often impact on their potential for commercialisation, further debate is likely on the risks versus benefits for areas where nanotechnology is seen to directly impact on human life e.g. food and drink, medicines, consumer goods, household care products, or the discussion into the use of nanosensors."

This exercise has had a direct impact on Research Council policy, as demonstrate by a Paper to EPSRC Council 11 December 2008 (EPSRC57-08) on public dialogues, which summarises the recommendation of EPSRC's Societal Issues Panel on the Nanomedicine dialogue: "It concluded that the exercise had been a ground-breaking and "brave" endeavour which had provided a very positive contribution to the decision-making process. SIP commended this approach to the Executive and Council." The paper goes on to say "EPSRC executive considered the advice from SIP and accepted the recommendations made. The executive agree that, under the right circumstances, public dialogues provide a useful generic tool in developing the strategy and direction for specific research areas.,, Indeed, following a discussion at SIP in September, EPSRC and BBSRC have agreed to conduct a joint public dialogue exercise around the area of synthetic biology."

In the field of science policy, the UK has been regarded as a leader in the area of public engagement around nanotechnology, and Jones's important role in this has been reflected by, for example, an invitation to give an invited talk at Polish EU Presidency event "Governance and ethics of nanosciences and nanotechnologies Nanoethics 2011", involving National Academies of Science from across Europe and senior representatives of the European Commission.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity Pre-2006,2006,2007,2008,2009