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 , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.)

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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.

Chengyin Technology Co. Ltd., a nanotech firm in China, claims to make particles that kill bacteria. The nanoparticles, according to the company's website, can be added to a range of products, including sinks and shoes. Nano-Tex, a subsidiary of Burlington Industries, provides Eddie Bauer and other clothing companies with what they need to make cloth stain resistant. Renee Hultin, Nano-Tex president for North America, says the firm aims to brand their product within others much like Intel did with its computer processor.

Nanotech has proven effective in boosting water-filtration systems. It is also being used to develop sensors that help the food industry detect suspected pathogens, says Rutgers chemist Oingrong Huang. Mr. Huang is working on nanoscale delivery systems that embed nutrients in foods that do not naturally have them. He says the Department of Defense is funding research into biodegradable food packaging that dramatically enhances shelf life. Many of these nano- enhanced products will migrate to supermarkets as soon as costs fall, he says.

Because so many markets are impacted, it's hard to pin down just how big nanotech really is. "Do you base it on value of nanotechnology sold, such as nano-tubes, or on the value they add to the products that they are incorporated in?" asks Tim Harper of CMP Cientifica, a consultancy based in Madrid. "Rather than looking for a nanotech market, it is better to look at the effect that nanotechnology has on other areas. It's like looking at the donut instead of the hole."

One oft-cited nanotechnology expert, Josh Wolfe of Lux Capital in New York City, has noted that many companies that are not engaged in nanotechnology use the "nano" prefix simply for its cachet, which only adds to the confusion.

But as nanotech's consumer payoffs grow, so do worries that some nanorelated products could be the thin end of a dangerous wedge. Some activists are calling for regulation and even a moratorium on some types of nanoscale research.

In January, a Canadian-based activist group issued a report attacking nanotechnology. The ETC Group says nanotech is proceeding too fast without proper studies of the possible downsides.

Already, the group has helped to turn public opinion in Europe against genetically modified foods, so-called "Frankenfoods." It now wants European authorities to forbid so-called molecular manufacturing. Its current report points in part to research at Rice University in Houston that suggests nanoparticles could eventually make their way into the food chain.

Vicki Colvin, director of Rice's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, where some of the work was conducted, is concerned that there is little hard evidence on the impact nanoparticles could have on health and the environment.

"Nanotechnology has a glowing reputation as the platform for 21st-century technology, but what about its potential environmental impacts?" Ms. Colvin wrote in a recent essay. "Despite moving full-speed ahead on nanomaterial development and applications, researchers have been slow to consider the possible risks of this emerging technology."

She adds that "in a field with more than 12,000 [scientific] citations a year, we were stunned to discover no prior research in developing nanomaterials risk-assessment models and no toxicology studies devoted to synthetic nanomaterials."

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.

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."

The sci-fi vision behind calls for nanotech regulation

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.

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