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Detecting & recovering nano-sized resources

While it's clear that nanotechnologies will play a large and essential role in the conversion to a sustainable, dMASS economy, they also pose potential risks.

Risks related to nanoparticles released into our environment are largely unknown. Nanoparticles could pose a threat to human health through water and food supplies as well as dispersal in the atmosphere. Large amounts could reduce the overall diversity or complexity of the biosphere. We do know that pharmaceuticalsplastics, and other substances are turning up in the food chains of humans and many other organisms, but the effects are just beginning to be studied, and the fate of nano-sized particles from emerging technologies is not yet understood.

From the standpoint of mining above grade, dispersed nanoparticles are difficult to detect and recover. This means that what begins as a valuable resource becomes waste. Gold, for example, has been used throughout history in quantities that could be recovered and reused repeatedly. Today it's being used in such tiny amounts in electronics that it's being "consumed" for the first time.

That's why I'm particularly interested in some of the new technologies that address detecting, separating, and recovering nano-sized resources.

A recent dMASS Resource Fix featured a molecular sorting technique that enables materials to be broken down into their constituent elements. Another profiled a new technology for detecting invisible amounts of gold and other metals that in the past would have been discarded.

Now another piece of the puzzle is emerging that could be an important safeguard. It's a sensor system made of "sticky electrodes" that can detect free nano-particles and help mitigate impacts on biological systems.

Innovations in resource detection may help manage risks associated with nanotechnology, as well as enhance resource recovery abilities.



Tony Hayward and the Gulf Oil Spill: Specialists, generalists, and risk

One of the interesting details that emerged after the BP Gulf oil spill disaster is that CEO Tony Hayward felt there were too many generalists at the company when he took over. In a 2009 speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Hayward described steps he took after becoming BP's CEO.  Shortly after assuming leadership in 2007, Hayward assembled a team to put the company through a critical self-assessment.  Among the team's findings was that:

 We had too many shallow generalists - people who knew a lot about not very much, but not a lot about specific areas.

As Hayward noted in the speech, the company was dealing with several disasters and near disasters, and was underperforming in revenue generation, given the size of their assets.  He targeted several areas related to safety, performance, and people to turn the company around.  The presence of too many generalists was one apparent cause of the company's troubles.  By changing personnel, Hayward was presumably aiming not only to generate more profits, but to prevent disasters.  

I can't begin to ascertain the causes of the Gulf oil disaster, nor the role of generalists in it.  But, I am interested in how Hayward raised the issues of generalists and finding the right balance between specialists and generalists. 

There's no doubt that designing and managing something as complicated as a deep sea oil rig requires specialists.  The question is, what do generalists bring to the table in the case of something so technically complex?

One thing generalists do is look at the whole.  Not the whole issue of environmental health and safety planning and training, or the whole incident response management plan, or the whole system of managing subcontractors, or even the whole design of the drill rig.  The whole.  The entire system of people, machinery, organizations, and policies - how the parts interrelate, where the weak spots and gaps are, and, perhaps most importantly, how all the little incidences of risk that are deemed acceptable on their own can add up to something altogether intolerable.  As they are not well-versed in the specifics, they also tend to ask a lot of questions.  These questions can seem naïve to experts, but they are often useful in revealing overlooked issues.

We've written here about home design and what happens when each little component is designed separately:  the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and not in a good way.  When no one considers how all the parts work together, the result is not only pieces working against one another, but lost opportunities to improve performance.  dMass certainly requires a measure of stepping back and thinking broadly. 

What do you think?  What value do you believe generalists offer?  How can we foster experts' roles and capabilities in thinking about whole systems?  What do these issues look like and mean to you in your organization?