February 25, 2008
Nanotechnology (or "nanotech") is the purposeful manipulation of matter at near-atomic or molecular scales to take advantage of the remarkable properties and functions that can occur at these sizes. As a rule of thumb, nanotech deals with matter between one and 100 nanometers long. To give you an idea of how small that is, a nanometer is roughly one-hundredth the width of a human hair. A strand of DNA is two nanometers wide, and a cold virus is about 100 nanometers long. If you were a nanometer tall, the top of a human fingernail would appear to be 150 times larger than the surface of the Earth.
We've actually been serendipitously using nanotechnology for more than 1,000 years. Nano-sized particles of gold interacting with light are what give red-stained glass its color. Nano particles were used as far back as the 9th century to give the surface of pottery a metallic glitter. What changed with the advent of the "scanning electron" and "atomic force" microscopes in the late 1980s was our ability to see, understand and intentionally engineer materials at the nanometer scale.
The property of gold nano particles that allows them to turn glass red can be used to turn a biological sensor red when it's in the presence of disease. When engineered at the nano-scale, carbon which is abundant in nature can form "carbon nanotubes," which are very flexible and 100 times stronger yet one-sixth the weight of steel. In addition to their strength, carbon nanotubes have excellent electrical conductivity; they retain this ability to "quantum tunnel," or move electrons at very high speed, even when they're bent or twisted. These properties make them, among other things, candidates for our next generation of power and data-transmission cables.
A common misconception about nanotech is that it is a single technology. Unlike biotechnology (which focuses on genes and DNA) or information technology (which focuses on microchips and software), nanotechnology encompasses a collection of methods and tools for dealing with all matter at the nano scale. It is best thought of as a new approach to building things. Working at the nano scale allows us to manufacture with unparalleled precision and efficiency. Rather than mining tons of ore at a great cost to the environment to find a handful of diamonds, nanotechnologists can start with carbon and build a flawless diamond one atom at a time. Because they are so precise, nanotech processes waste less material, consume less energy and produce better results.
Nanotechnology is the frontier of innovation; given its potential, it is not surprising that it is the focus of a global scientific race. The prize for winning this race is leadership in the production of renewable energy, clean water, cancer cures and next-generation computing. The U.S. government took an early lead in 2002 with the 21st Century Research and Development Act, which pledged $5 billion over four years to become a leader in nano science. That lead has steadily been eroded. Japan announced an equivalent initiative within months of ours. Since then, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, China, Taiwan, India and Singapore have stepped up to the plate with significant investments.
The 21st Century Research and Development Act expires this year, and we have not been in a technology race this close since the Apollo project. Given what is at stake and the degree to which the U.S. relies on innovation to fuel its economy, nanotechnology is a global competition that America can ill-afford not to win.
Aatish Salvi is vice president of the NanoBusiness Alliance.
Nanotechnology is a powerful new technology for taking apart and reconstructing nature at the atomic and molecular levels. But "nano" means more than just tiny manufacturing at a billionth of a meter in scale. Rather, the prefix is best understood to also mean that a substance can act in fundamentally different ways. Materials engineered or manufactured to the nano scale exhibit different fundamental physical, biological and chemical properties than bulk materials. One reason for these fundamentally different properties is that a different realm of physics quantum physics governs at the nano scale. Another is that the reduction in size to the nano scale results in an enormous increase of surface-to-volume ratio, giving nano particles a much greater surface area per unit mass compared with larger particles.
Because of these new properties, nanotechnology has been touted by its proponents as nothing less than the "next industrial revolution" transforming and constructing a wide range of new materials, devices, technological systems in a wide number of fields. However, just as the size and chemical characteristics of engineered nanoparticles can give them exciting properties, those same new properties tiny size, vastly increased surface area-to-volume ratio, high reactivity can also create unique and unpredictable human health and environmental risks. Swiss insurance giant Swiss Re noted in 2004, "Never before have the risks and opportunities of a new technology been as closely linked as they are in nanotechnology. It is precisely those characteristics which make nanoparticles so valuable that give rise to concern regarding hazards to human beings and the environment alike." For example, studies have compared the carbon nanotubes Aatish mentions with asbestos based on their shape and effect on the lungs when inhaled. We will discuss these potential risks in the coming days.
There is no shortage of money being spent promoting the technology's applications. Investments in federally-funded nanotechnology activities coordinated through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) totaled approximately $1.4 billion in 2007. Unfortunately, NNI's fiscal year 2007 budget earmarked less than 4% for environmental health and safety research. Even less is being spent studying broader socioeconomic and ethical concerns, such as the displacement of whole industries and their workers that Aatish notes nano-scale manufacturing may portend.
Nanotechnology is a commercial reality. Lux Research's 2006 Nanotechnology Report noted that more than $32 billion in products incorporating nanotechnology were sold that year. Lux predicts that by 2014, $2.6 trillion in manufactured products will be nano products, which amounts to 15% of total global manufacturing. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies' inventory of nano-material consumer products lists more than 580 products currently on market shelves, including paints, coatings, sunscreens, medical bandages, sporting goods, personal-care products, cosmetics, clothing, dietary supplements, food packaging and light-emitting diodes used in computers, cellphones and digital cameras. Putting these nano products into the market without assessing the potential risks is like trying to get an Apollo capsule to the moon without knowing whether the rocket carrying it will explode on the way.
It is past time for government to do more research on the basic health and safety aspects of nanotechnologies as well as deficiencies in existing health and environmental protection laws. It should spend less on promotional activities best carried out by business. We are so caught up in the "race" Aatish describes that we have failed to ask what the potential risks are or consider what type of world are we racing toward.
George A. Kimbrell is staff attorney for the International Center for Technology Assessment, where he works on legal and policy issues related to nanotechnology, biotechnology and climate-change technologies.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times