The next big thing (is practically invisible)
Nanoparticles - objects on a scale of one-billionth of a meter - now turn up in everyday products from tennis balls to sunscreen.
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Colvin says it will take many months before the risks are better understood. She adds that there is no foregone assumption that nanoparticles are bad. In fact, proper research could ease fears and help to commercialize nanoparticles even more rapidly.Skip to next paragraph
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The ETC Group, however, will do little to help any investor jitters. Pat Moore, the group's director, says he plans to take his report to several of the world's leading scientific organizations in the coming weeks. He has also been invited to address the European Parliament.
"We are focusing on how to make this a more public issue; how to create a public discussion," says Mr. Moore. "Not only are we looking into the environmental and health impacts of nanoparticles, we are also addressing issues of ownership and control, trying to understand who is getting the patents. We are trying to see where [nanotechnology] is likely to head."
Many experts complain that media too often seize on the sci-fi aspects of nanotechnology. The "purist" vision of nano-technology is often associated with nanotech prophet K. Eric Drexler's book "Engines of Creations."
It predicts an age dominated by molecular manufacturing and a world devoid of material scarcity. The reason: Whatever humans need will one day be built cheaply with microscopic self-replicating machines that snap together atoms to create copies of any organism found in the world - from trees to, in a highly controversial area, human bodies.
While the most advanced microscopes let today's scientists see and touch the basic blocks of matter - atoms and molecules - scientists are nowhere near molecular manufacturing.
In fact, the scientific community is deeply divided over whether self-replicating machines are possible. If they are, major dangers could exist. Mr. Drexler himself put forth a theory known as "Grey Goo," in which self-replicating machines could potentially go out of control and reduce life on Earth to a chemical sludge.
Drexler writes in his book that man-made "plants" with "leaves no more efficient than today's solar cells could out compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with inedible foliage. Tough omnivorous "bacteria" could out-compete real bacteria: They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days."
Critics of nanotechnology, including The ETC Group, have seized on such images, calling for a moratorium on commercial nanotechnology until regulations are established.
They also point to the potential military (and terrorist) uses of nanotech. Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, wrote in a Wired magazine essay in 2000 that nanotechnology will combine with genomics and robotics. If the technologies fall into the wrong hands, he writes, they could place humanity on "the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil."
Opponents say ETC and Mr. Joy are overreacting. "In a way, calling for [bans on research into molecular manufacturing] is like calling for a moratorium on faster-than-light travel because no one is doing it," says Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor.
Professor Reynolds says it is a good idea to regulate nanotechnology, but in ways the government would regulate any potentially dangerous products. Export controls and certification regimes for nanotech companies are examples.
US lawmakers have put forth four bills on nanotech, mostly related to shoring up research and development.