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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.

By Kelly HearnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2003

Michael Crichton's new sci-fi novel, "Prey," is a Frankensteinian tale about someone who creates autonomous nano-robots that end up causing huge problems.

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Consumers can buy the book at any American mall, where they can also pop into an Eddie Bauer store and buy a pair of "Nano-Care" stain-resistant pants.

The two products are symbolic bookends to the hastening public emergence of nanotechnology, a convergence of scientific fields that ultimately seeks to make devices that work on the scale of a billionth of a meter. (Nano is a Greek word that means one-billionth.)

Physical, engineering, and biological sciences all are affected by nanotechnology. And the promised payoffs are staggering: The National Science Foundation (NSF) said in a recent report that nanotechnology has "the potential to enhance human performance, to bring sustainable development for materials, water, energy, and food, to protect against unknown bacteria and viruses, and even to diminish the reasons [for] breaking peace" by reducing the need to fight over resources.

The Bush administration is listening: Its 2004 budget provides $847 million to the federal government's multiagency National Nanotechnology Initiative, a 9.5 percent increase over 2003. By 2001, more than 30 countries already had nanoscale research programs. Many major corporations now have their own R&D programs. In the US, nanotech will create 2 million jobs in the next decade, says the organization, many of them in defense.

Though still largely exploratory, nanoscience is gradually becoming nanobusiness, and consumers looking for payoffs should expect near-term gains in semiconductors, data storage, life sciences, and optics to name a few.

The NSF predicts a $1 trillion global market for nanotechnology in little over a decade and one industry group says 21 of the 1,300 or so firms offering nanorelated products today are bringing in revenue.

Consumers can already put their hands on a few products that have benefited from gains in the field of nanotech. Nanometer-size particles, collectively known as nanoparticles, have been added to products such as plastics or fabric to give them novel qualities.

Babolat, a French sporting-goods company claims to have beefed up the swatting power of some of its tennis racquets with additives called carbon nanotubes, or cylindrical sheets of carbon atoms that are reportedly stronger and lighter than steel.

Another sporting-goods manufacturer, Wilson, adds nanoscale bits of clay to one of its tennis balls, supposedly keeping it bouncing longer by reducing the amount of air that seeps through the ball's lining.

Off the court, General Motor's newer Astro and Safari minivans reportedly have running boards made tougher by nanotech. German company Nanogate is building nonstick coating for glass and anticorrosion linings for metals. The firm says one of its products is a coating that allows graffiti to be easily and safely washed off structures. Nanoparticles are put in several brands of sunscreen and L'Oréal, the cosmetics giant, reportedly uses nanoscale additives to enhance its beautification products.

Of course, upgrades in cosmetics could lead to the use of the "First Responder" home-pregnancy test manufactured by Carter-Wallace, the New York based biotechnology company. The test uses gold particles (less than 50 nanometers in diameter) to help consumers read test results more easily.