Nanotech: Big Risks, Big Opportunities

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

The future of nanotechnology- the manipulation of objects less than one billionth of a meter in size-is a source of speculation and debate among physicists, computer scientists, and other technorati. Some enthusiasts have forecast a great economic boom; others have predicted that nanoscience could result in environmental destruction on a global scale.

The U.S. Congress is wading once again into the subject, focusing specifically on the policy implications for this rapidly advancing field.

In March 2007, the congressional Joint Economic Committee (JEC) released a report titled “Nanotech-nology: The Future Is Coming Sooner Than You Think,” written by Economics and Statistics Administration chief Joseph Kennedy and sponsored by Joint Economic Committee ranking member Jim Saxton (Republican of New Jersey). The report details the present and potential legal issues surrounding nanotech.

According to Saxton’s office, the congressman’s interest in nanotech-nology is primarily economic- specifically, how the United States could obtain competitive advantage in the new field. However, the report does signal an important step forward in the willingness of governmental leaders to explore the long-term and even hypothetical impacts of key technologies. Currently, the U.S. government is the primary funding source for nanotech research taking place across the country, through the National Nanotech-nology Initiative (NNI).

The report concludes that the recent advent of such technologies as scanning tunneling, microscopy, magnetic force microscopy, and electron microscopy are opening the field to public investment and significant progress in the years ahead. Passive nanostructures (artificial ma-terials) have already been manufactured into tennis rackets, apparel, and cosmetics. Eventually, researchers could use nano-constructed material to build vastly more efficient solar panels. The pharmaceutical industry is experimenting with active nanostructures (nanoparticles that change state during use) to treat cancer. Breakthroughs in this area could one day even thwart currency counterfeiting in the form of dollar bills that defy duplication.

While the report does make clear that more government research is needed to fully explore the potential health and environmental effects of nano-engineered particles, it concludes, “the need to conduct these studies should not be used to prevent the introduction of new products.”

Such unreserved confidence in the safety of nanoscience and nano-engineered materials has angered some environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, which released a report in 2006 titled “Nanomateri-als, Sunscreens and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients, Big Risks.” The report charges that “Carbon fullerenes (buckyballs), currently being used in some face creams and moisturizers, have been found to cause brain damage in fish, kill water fleas and have bactericidal properties. Even low levels of exposure to fullerenes have been shown to be toxic to human liver cells.” Friends of the Earth calls the U.S. government’s lack of oversight on this issue “one of the most dramatic failures of regulation since the introduction of asbestos.”

The congressional report concludes that more research into the effects of nanotechnology would be “enormously valuable,” but cautions that such research is likely to proceed slowly. Given the potential of nanotechnology to improve the performance and efficiency of electronics, solve energy problems, and treat disease, the benefits of allowing research and marketing of nanotech goods to continue unfettered far outweighs the potential costs. “Arguments can and will be made against nanotechnologies even when an impartial cost/benefit evaluation shows that the technology will probably bring net benefits to society,” Kennedy writes.

Additionally, and most significantly in terms of future policy, the report contends that the debate on the safety of nanotechnology would be improved if nano-enhanced or contrived devices were clearly labeled as such and if private companies were required to disclose to the Food and Drug Administration the results of safety tests.

“Congress could encourage additional safety testing by making it easier for companies to collaborate on precompetitve research into the environmental, health and safety impact of nanomaterials,” states the report. -Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August

Sidebar: I ran into Ralph Nader at the Union Station in D.C. after this came out. Nanotech regulation was key on his mind.

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