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Nanotechnology and the Future of WMDs

Spencer Toohill


Nanotechnology will accelerate and complicate existing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) threats. A greater understanding of nanotech among policymakers is necessary for a more proactive and preventative policy framework. Nanotechnology acts as an enabling technology, enhancing the functionality of other technologies and enabling capabilities not previously possible. This article will explain the technical intricacies of nanotechnology, discuss some potential benefits of nanotech, explain nanotech’s application in biological and chemical weapons, and unpack some of the proliferation risks associated with nanotechnology. Then, I will offer three policy recommendations aimed at both national and international changes to better understand and incorporate the opportunities and threats of nanotechnology. Finally, this article concludes by contemplating the future of nanotechnology.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

Nanotechnology operates at the nanoscale (1 to 100 nanometers), involving the manipulation of cells and molecules. The macro-scale encompasses entities visible to the naked eye, while the micro-scale involves objects that require microscopic observation, such as bacteria. The nanoscale occupies a position below the macro-scale and the micro-scale. At the nanoscale, the focus shifts to the manipulation of molecules and DNA that constitute larger cells, delving into the intricate world of molecular structures. It's crucial to note that the nanoscale differs from the atomic scale, where manipulation pertains to individual atoms—the next scale down from the nanoscale. In essence, the nanoscale bridges the gap between the larger molecular world and the atomic realm, playing a pivotal role in the manipulation and understanding of molecular and genetic components.

At a normal scale (macro or micro), common materials have a range of different physical, chemical, mechanical, and optical properties. However, matter behaves quite differently at the nanoscale, deviating from the laws of physics that apply to bigger objects and operating according to a new set of rules (quantum effects) that alter the electrical, optical, thermal, and mechanical properties of materials. Nanotech enables scientists to exploit the laws of quantum mechanics to construct materials with unimaginable precision to make products stronger, more durable, lightweight, anti-reflective, conductive, and even water resistant.

Nanotechnology was first discovered in 1981 with the development of microscopes capable of seeing individual atoms and operating at the nanoscale. Since then, nanotechnology has revolutionized industries. Consumer products made with nanomaterials first began to appear in the marketplace in the early 2000s and, today, companies around the world manufacture nanomaterials to make new products and improve existing ones. The intersection of nanotechnology with other emerging technologies holds the promise of elevating its role as a transformative force. One notable avenue is the synergy between nanotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI), where advancements in nanotechnology are anticipated to underpin the evolution of the next generation of AI, thereby facilitating the development of more sophisticated robotics and heightened computing capabilities. Moreover, new nanomaterials are poised to enhance 3D printing resolutions, opening up innovative possibilities in manufacturing processes. Nanotechnology has the potential for revolutionary advancements in fields from medicine to military power; as such, nanotech requires greater attention from the policy community.

What’s in it for Me?

Nanotechnology has clear benefits. Looking ahead, the potential application of nanotechnology in healthcare is a compelling prospect. Delivering molecules into the human body via nanoparticles offers the prospect of gene editing for disease treatment. However, what is most pressing is the fact that nanotechnology holds tremendous promise for producing new solutions to counter threats posed by WMD, including the development of new medical countermeasures, advances in sensing, and improved ability to respond to WMD incidents.

Additionally, WMDs are not the only weapons that benefit. One potential benefit of using nanotechnology in modern conventional weaponry is that it could make weapons more efficient and effective. Nanotechnology holds the potential to revolutionize weaponry by introducing innovative capabilities, such as the creation of nanoscale explosives that surpass the power and efficiency of conventional counterparts. Beyond explosive applications, incorporating nanomaterials into body armor presents an opportunity to develop lighter yet stronger protective gear, enabling enhanced mobility for military personnel without compromising safety. Furthermore, the integration of nanotechnology into modern weaponry offers the prospect of improved accuracy and precision. Nanosensors, capable of detecting chemicals, biological agents, or radiation in the environment, empower military personnel to swiftly identify potential threats. Additionally, leveraging nanotechnology in targeting systems enhances weapon accuracy, contributing to reduced casualties and minimized collateral damage.

However, despite these potential advantages, the integration of nanotechnology into modern weaponry brings forth significant risks and challenges that necessitate careful consideration. Notably, the specialized and expensive equipment required for nanotechnology poses a formidable barrier to entry, potentially limiting its accessibility for less advanced actors. Furthermore, the need for extensive training and significant tacit knowledge adds an additional layer of economic cost, rendering the technology prohibitive for many stakeholders. These limitations are coupled with the fear of proliferation of this technology and knowledge to adversaries and corrupt actors. Balancing the potential benefits with ethical and safety concerns is crucial to harnessing the full potential of nanotechnology in military applications.

Bigger Does Not Always Mean Better

Nanotechnology's impact on chemical and biological weapons is substantial. The future landscape of WMDs faces an expanding array of risks due to the emergence of nanotechnology, particularly concerning the delivery and development of high explosives. As technological advancements unfold, we can anticipate that this roster of risks will grow in scope and complexity. The convergence of nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and chemistry enables the creation of more lethal chemical and biological agents. Gene-editing and chemical synthesis at the nanoscale allows for the creation of entirely new organisms, toxins, and chemicals, while also amplifying the toxicity of inorganic chemicals. Far smaller amounts of the agents would need to be made, and this would require only small, low-level facilities, making detection even more difficult. Furthermore, at the nanoscale, chem and bioagents become easier to produce and transport. Nanotechnology also facilitates the creation of advanced delivery systems; an example of this are nanotubes, which deliver lethal parts of viruses while evading immune detection. Encapsulation and aerosolization of lethal organisms are also improved, posing significant challenges in responding to attacks. These advancements in the chem and bio arenas hinder counter-proliferation and counter-WMD operations, complicating efforts to detect and disrupt nano-enabled agents.

In addition, nanotechnology's impact extends to indirect enabling effects, particularly within the realm of nanoenergetics and high explosives. The combination of nano-explosives with other emerging technologies, such as commercial drones and swarming capabilities, has the potential to facilitate the development of new WMDs with mass effects wielded by both state and non-state actors. Nanoenergetics leverage the expansive surface area of nanomaterials to accelerate the reaction rates in explosive materials, resulting in more potent explosions. The integration of nanomaterials into explosives enables precise control over fuel combustion and detonation, paving the way for the creation of smaller yet more powerful rockets, propellants, bombs, and explosive devices. This technological synergy implies that smaller platforms, including commercial drones, can carry significantly greater destructive power, posing a heightened threat to even the most robust and sophisticated targets.

However, as noted above, there are still significant barriers to using nanotechnology. Economic cost, sophisticated equipment, and a high level of training and tacit knowledge will prevent less advanced state actors and nonstate actors from exploiting the advantages of nanotechnology in the near term. Even still, the proliferation risk remains.

Just Google It

Nanotechnology is becoming increasingly cheap and user-friendly. Nanotechnology presents three significant proliferation threats: an increased risk of nano-enabled bioterrorism due to the growing accessibility of nanotech tools, state actors exploiting nanotech for advanced chemical and biological weapons, and concerns about arms races and strategic instability. Firstly, the widespread diffusion of nanotech raises concerns about the increased risk of nano-enabled bioterrorism. The growing accessibility and affordability of nanotechnology, coupled with the availability of "Do-It-Yourself" nanotech hardware and open-source instructions online, foster an environment where even non-experts can embark on potentially harmful endeavors. For instance, instructional resources for constructing a DNA nanotechnology lab under $500 or conducting nanotechnology experiments for all ages underscore the ease with which individuals can venture into weapon engineering from the confines of their homes.

Secondly, nanotechnology’s evolution aims to facilitate the development and deployment of advanced chemical and biological weapons by state actors. Nanotech will make these weapons cheaper to produce and easier to conceal and transport, which will facilitate their proliferation to rogue states. Additionally, the dynamic nature of nanotech outpaces existing national and international laws designed to curb the spread of hazardous chemicals, posing a significant regulatory challenge.

Thirdly, the emergence of new nano-enabled capabilities introduces a potential risk of accelerating arms races and undermining strategic stability, particularly between Western states and their authoritarian great power counterparts. As global militaries invest in covert research and development programs to harness nanotechnology's potential, the inherent risk of offense-defense spirals looms large. This trajectory not only heightens the likelihood of conflict but also raises the specter of bloodier confrontations if hostilities ensue.

Moreover, the dual-use character of nanotechnology, serving both civilian and military applications, adds a layer of complexity to regulatory endeavors, as governments tread cautiously in imposing stringent controls. The swift emergence and convergence of nanotechnology with other scientific disciplines create a challenging landscape, with the technology's rapid progression potentially outpacing existing legal and policy frameworks. In the short term, the intersection of nanotechnology with other sciences is poised to yield incremental or exponential enhancements to existing weaponry, eroding the distinct boundaries that traditionally underpin arms control and regulatory laws. The myriad combinations of nano-bio-chem-conventional capabilities offer a vast array of possibilities. While not revolutionary individually, these combinations could exploit the gaps and seams within the current patchwork regulatory regime. This dynamic landscape underscores the need for proactive and adaptive regulatory approaches that can effectively address the evolving challenges posed by the dual-use nature and rapid advancements in nanotechnology.


  1. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office should take charge to demand and encourage the establishment of International Epistemic Communities surrounding nanotechnology and the threats and opportunities that stem from it.

These offices must propose the creation of an international working group on military nanotechnology under the auspices of the United Nations. Scientific uncertainty, stemming from a lack of consensus on nanotechnology's definition and insufficient data on its characteristics, hinders effective governance at the national and international levels. This uncertainty, coupled with the technology's unique properties and applications, challenges existing regulatory frameworks, contributing to international disagreements over nanotech regulation within traditional arms control regimes. An international epistemic community would foster shared knowledge to better understand the costs, benefits, and risks of nanotechnology, laying the groundwork for coordination at the international level.

  1. In coordination with the experts at the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), private industry and the Department of Commerce must enhance export controls for nanotechnologies.

The U.S. export control community must to advocate for the expansion of existing export control regimes, such as the Australia Group, to encompass broader categories of nanotechnologies. Additionally, it will be up to export controls to encourage national governments to coordinate regulatory strategies based on knowledge and understanding of nanotechnology risks. While difficult, it may even be worthwhile to consider the establishment of a new export control regime tailored to address the unique demands of emerging technologies.

  1. The U.S. ambassador to the UN should use that seat at the international level to leverage U.S. international power and legitimacy to update and strengthen international law to include the proliferation risks associated with nanotechnology.

International law should call for the updating of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions, specifically their annexes, to encompass a broader range of nano-enabled agents. The U.S. ambassador to the UN should propose the addition of a robust verification and enforcement regime to enhance the effectiveness of these conventions in addressing nano-related threats. Additionally, the international community should encourage international dialogue on potential arms racing and strategic instability, emphasizing transparency in research and development programs, particularly between major players.


As nanotechnology continues to advance, the field will yield new dangers for the WMD space. Despite the benefits that nanotech can provide, the threats to chemical and biological weapons are substantial. If left unchecked, the proliferation of nanotechnology, nano-enabled agents, and nanotech equipment will generate a new breed of WMDs. Enhancing the comprehension of nanotechnology among policymakers is crucial for the establishment of a proactive policy framework. As such, a conglomeration of U.S. policymakers, scientists, engineers, and other experts should further research if and when the technological effects of nanotechnology could be imminent to national security concerns. By leveraging international cooperation, refining export controls, and updating relevant legal frameworks, policymakers can enhance global efforts to harness and mitigate the risks associated with nanotechnology.

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