Aerosil® – a problem solving powder
The company Evonik Degussa has made a new business model fit a general conception of nanotechnology and nanotechnology fit the new business model. Under the heading “What is nanotechnology?” the company announces quite casually: “Substances with structures in the nanometer range often have completely new properties. These can be used to create innovative applications and improved products” (Evonik 2009). The story behind this innocuous formulation is that of a material called Aerosil®, which Degussa has been producing since the 1940s and which literally changed its nature or state of being when it was reborn as a nanostructured material. Aerosil® is a powder that has all kinds of uses and occurs in many technological applications. As long as it was conceived as a material substance, Degussa’s contribution consisted in manufacturing it on an industrial scale and selling it in large quantities. Its buyers used it as a component that added a desired quality to their end-product. With the advent of nanotechnologies, however, Aerosil® ceased being a manufactured powder. It was transmuted into a collection of properties that owe not so much to their structural substrate and material nature but to a nanostructured surface.1 Moreover, this collection of properties represents actual and potential solutions to present and future technical problems. Accordingly, Aerosil® is no longer marketed principally as a powder or bulk product but for its potential functionalities as an innovative solution – for example in dispersions that meet buyers’ needs.
Over the course of 50 years, the material had become commonplace and routine, but the advent of nanotechnology turned it into a bundle of surprisingly attractive possibilities, and research efforts are now devoted to discovering novel uses and market-opportunities which will attract developers.2 Instead of selling a bulk product, Evonik Degussa is moving towards licensing its knowledge of these properties, their potential functionality, and its skill in handling them. Unlike the material itself, this knowledge does not change owners when it is sold: like the buyer of a software package, the buyer of Aerosil® uses this knowledge without becoming its sole owner, and the nanoparticles themselves are something akin to the DVD on which the software is delivered.
This transition from control through the industrial reproduction of a defined structure to the creative diversification of useful properties amounts to an uprooting and reorientation of these properties. They are no longer conceived primarily as dependent on structure and thus on their nature, but in regard to how they can be functionalized and thus in regard to varied human interests and uses. Now that nano research has devoted itself to discovering surprising properties at a scale where there are no lawfully predictable structure-property relations, Evonik Degussa is celebrating this liberating separation of functional properties from causally determinate structure.
- It is no accident that the word “transmutation” is used here. There are frequent references to nanotechnology as a kind of new alchemy (NSTC 1999: 4), and there is an alchemical background also to 19th century philosophy of nature (Magee 2001, Liedtke 2003).
- Evonik Degussa’s business model also involves coming up with these potential applications themselves and stimulating interest among buyers. On this, see the company history of “Degussa Advanced Nanomaterials” at www.advanced-nano.com (accessed: 14.4.2009).
- Evonik Degussa GmbH, “What is nanotechnology?”, not dated, accessible at www.degussa-nano.com/nano/en/nanotechnology/ (accessed: 14.4.09).
- Nordmann, Alfred (2010), Enhancing material nature. In: Kjolberg, K. & F. Wickson (eds.), Nano goes Macro: Social Perspectives on Nanoscale Sciences and Technologies.