Nanotech, now and later

Today, Kimbrell and Salvi evaluate nanotech’s progress and predict where the technology may take us. Previously, they the scope of nanotechnology and its potential drawbacks. Later in the week, they’ll discuss government regulation, ethical issues and more.

Nanotech is here to stay
By Aatish Salvi

As I mentioned in my post on Monday, nanotechnology is not a single technology but a combination that provides the ability to work with matter at the nanometer scale. As consumers, we’re not going to be walking down the aisles shopping for a jar of our favorite type of nanoparticle. We will, however, encounter products that incorporate nanomaterials and that are enabled and made better by them. This is much like the microchip, which we rarely encounter on its own but is ubiquitous as the " Intel Inside” in our computers.

The nanotechnology-enabled products that companies have out today are more evolutionary in nature but hint at the full potential of harnessing the technology. Nanofilm’s Clarity Defender is a self-assembling thin film that coats automotive glass with an invisible, water-repellent nanobarrier. Independent tests have proved that on a rainy night, added visibility from these repellents can add a full second to response time — at 60 mph, that can translate to an 88-foot margin of safety. A123 Systems uses its NanophosphateTM technology to manufacture some of the world’s safest and most powerful rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Its 36-volt battery pack powers DeWalt drills and is so power-dense that it was used to build a motorcycle that broke the land speed record for an all-electric motorbike (zero to 60 mph in 1.04 seconds). The best part? The bike used only 10 cents’ worth of electricity. QuantumSphere, another battery maker, is using nanoscale metals to significantly improve the performance of the batteries used in hearing aids and digital cameras while making them mercury-free. In all these cases, there is a common theme: Nanotechnology offers significant performance improvements to existing products while often making them safer or reducing their harmful effects.


If we allow ourselves to consider the possibilities only about five to 10 years out, we begin to see the products that are truly revolutionary. CombiMatrix and Nanosphere will manufacture low-cost, point-of-care diagnostic systems that will enable accurate diagnosis of a variety of diseases in minutes, resulting in earlier treatment and saving lives. BIND Biosciences, NanoSpectra Biosciences and Kereos will have available a variety of nanoparticle-based therapies to specifically attack cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. HelioVolt and many others will produce high-efficiency, flexible solar cells that reduce the cost of solar energy and meet a meaningful fraction of our energy needs. Nanotech will also help conserve energy. Nanofilm’s coatings will allow glass to clean itself and react with sunlight to cut in half the energy costs of cooling or heating a house. The Environmental Protection Agency, in its “Nanotechnology White Paper,” names eight nanotech applications — including better power transmission and lightweight materials — which, when realized, will reduce America’s energy consumption by 14.6% annually. That’s about 3 million barrels of crude oil saved every year.

Realizing the benefits of nanotechnology will take time. That should come as no surprise. Nanotech is trying to solve some of the hardest and most meaningful challenges in our world today. We have been spoiled by the Internet boom, which taught us to expect massive, explosive technological growth and multibillion-dollar companies emerging practically overnight from a garage with a computer and a 20-year-old. Nanotech isn’t about a better way to sell books and CDs, it is about solving the problems fundamental to the survival of the human race. Success in defeating those challenges and creating a new industrial economy is going to require the dedication, innovation and creative energy that we showed as a nation during the Apollo project. Responsible development is critical, but ignoring the need for this technology in the face of nebulous and poorly defined fears would be truly hazardous.

Aatish Salvi is vice president of the NanoBusiness Alliance.

Don’t, don’t, don’t believe the hype
By George A. Kimbrell

It is always important when assessing new technologies to distinguish between hype and promise. The nanotech hype has reached remarkable proportions — here’s a quote from Philip Bond, a former Commerce Department undersecretary:

[N]ano’s potential rises to near biblical proportions. It is not inconceivable that these technologies could eventually achieve the truly miraculous: enabling the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the deaf to hear; curing AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other afflictions; ending hunger; and even supplementing the power of our minds, enabling us to think great thoughts, create new knowledge, and gain new insights.

Nor is the hype of nanotech limited to the future, as this recent article discusses.

What the future will actually bring is unknown, as technology’s “hype versus promise” divide is an old story, worsened by hubris. If history is our guide, be prepared for a letdown. Proponents of genetically engineered crops promised to feed the world; instead, they gave us patented crops resistant to their own pesticides so that they could sell more of their pesticides and own the seeds. Gene-transfer experiments hyped as “gene therapy” have not cured any patients; instead, they caused many deaths and the first genetically engineered leukemia.

Aatish describes potential futuristic nano-medical breakthroughs, but the present reality is that nanotech has merely “enhanced” consumer products, such as the cosmetics and personal-care products that are the leading sector. For example, nanoparticles are infused in sunscreens not because they provide more protection but because the nanomaterials’ unique optical properties make the sunscreen transparent and therefore more marketable. Consumers Reports found that these nano-sunscreens were no more protective than old-fashioned sunscreens. Yesterday Aatish set up a false choice: Consumers need not expose themselves to the unknown risks of nanotech in order to protect from the sun’s rays. As this report details, use sunscreen — just not nano-sunscreens.

Aatish calls the risks I outlined yesterday “nebulous,” but the crux of our disagreement is that I believe that a lack of data or evidence of specific harm cannot substitute for a reasonable certainty of safety. Moreover, the potential risks must be weighed against this nano-consumer product reality, not any predicted future medicinal breakthrough that may or may not come to pass.

Nanotech will likely bring about some advances that improve our world. The future will also almost certainly bring unforeseen problems caused by nanotech, as it is not the first “wonder” technology. Aatish’s blinders to the potential risks are also nothing new. Asbestos was once considered an ideal flameproof material for clothing, building, and other goods; now it kills 10,000 people annually. For over 50 years, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were used as refrigerants and insulators in innumerable appliances and goods; scientists today know CFCs trigger ozone destruction, leading to less protection from the sun’s UVB rays and increasing the risk of skin cancer, and eventually leading to international and national bans on their release. The potential risks of nanotech are even broader given that it is a ubiquitous platform technology. As illustrated by asbestos, CFCs, DDT, leaded gasoline, PCBs, mercury and numerous other former “wonder” substances and technologies, some nanomaterials will undoubtedly have significant, unforeseen and unintended negative consequences on human health and the environment.

Aatish’s post Tuesday assumes that technology is “inevitable” and equals “progress.” We need to ask: progress toward what? And who benefits from the hype of “progress” being advocated? Certainly, nano-business promoters, but who else? The public has shown that it has the right and ability to choose the direction of our society, and that direction is not necessarily blindly proselytizing for the newest “gee whiz” technology. Look at the stunning growth of the organic and “green” markets as recent examples. A much easier way to save the oil Aatish claims nanotech could save would be to simply use more public transport or increase fuel efficiency. So long as the public has meaningful participation in the nanotech debate, we can expect that the nano-business sector will have to actually produce safe, well-tested products public wants and not just hype.

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.

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