Nanotechnology: Good Things in Small Packages

Critics exaggerate the dangers. Boosters flog the benefits. Let’s give nanotechnology a chance to develop before we start taking sides.
Articol preluat /Popular Mechanics

Nanotechnology: Is it going to change the world? Or, as one article recently asked, is „nano” in danger of becoming the new „turbo”—a marketing term that doesn’t have much to do with what’s inside the box? The answer is both, I’m afraid, and that poses problems for investors, regulators and consumers.

The idea of nanotechnology goes back a while. In a 1960 essay titled „There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” physicist Richard Feynman noted that the principles of physics didn’t bar maneuvering things atom by atom. „It would be possible for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down,” he observed. „How? Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance.”

Unfortunately, as Feynman also noted, the tools for this sort of manipulation didn’t exist then. In the intervening years, however, molecular-scale technologies have come a long way: This past July Fourth, students created a nanoflag using equipment borrowed from Zyvex, a nanotechnology company. We still have a way to go before we’re doing everything that Feynman predicted, but skeptics’ claims that it would prove impossible to put things together on such a small scale have turned out to be wrong.

And, yes, we also have nanotechnology companies. Some, like Zyvex, are very real, exploring molecular manufacturing, nanoscale materials and so on. For others, nanotechnology is mostly a marketing slogan—something to put on the label. The tension between these two is threatening to create problems.

Spooky Nano

Serious nanotechnology runs the gamut from things we can’t do yet—so-called „spooky” nanotechnology like build-anything molecular assemblers and bacterium-size supercomputers—to things we are beginning to be able to do like diagnostic nanosensors and superstrong carbon nanotube materials. Then, there are things that are barely nanotechnology at all. Nano-Tex is a company that uses nanoparticles to make stain-resistant fabric found in pants and shirts from Eddie Bauer and others. (These clothes really work, as my potentially disastrous gravy incident last Thanksgiving proved, but they’re not the sort of thing that most people mean when they talk about nanotechnology.)

Specious Nano

Then there’s the nanotechnology that’s just, well, fake. It may turn out to be the most dangerous kind to date. Earlier this year, newspapers reported that a German cleaning product called Magic Nano had been recalled after dozens of users suffered lung problems.

Was this a sign that industry and regulators couldn’t be trusted to keep nanotechnology safe, that we were all doomed, doomed? Apparently not. A few weeks later, it was reported that Magic Nano didn’t actually contain nanomaterials. It was just a marketing slogan designed to trade on the reputation of nanotechnology as something revolutionary. Nobody knows why the users got sick, but it had nothing to do with nanotechnology.

We’re likely to see more of this kind of thing in the future and, to some degree, the nanotechnology industry has itself to blame. Worried that the spooky stuff might create a political backlash, the industry pooh-poohed the more advanced applications and emphasized near-term uses such as coatings. This short-term focus only amplifies stories about things like Magic Nano.

The good news is that some people are taking a more sensible approach. There is a modest near-term potential for danger with some nanomaterials: Nanoscale particles can penetrate cells and sometimes have different chemical activity than larger particles of the same substances. A couple of years ago, I attended an EPA Science Board meeting on this topic, and the scientists there seemed confident that some research and thought on workplace protections could address the problem. While there may or may not be some dangers here, they’re likely minor and manageable.

Spookier nanotechnology may pose some scarier hazards, but we’ve got a while yet before they become real. If unsecured, self-replicating nanorobots might turn the entire world into „gray goo,” the hypothetical end-of-days scenario described by pioneering nanotechnologist Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation. Nanoweapons may be more dangerous than bioweapons, but not in the near future. In the meantime, groups like the Foresight Nanotech Institute (I’m on its board) and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology are working on ethics and safety guidelines to minimize risks.

While we debate, scientists are already demonstrating impressive progress in using nanotechnology to regenerate severed nerves, fight cancer and scavenge environmental toxins. Those beneficial aspects of nanotechnology illustrate why we should be going ahead, despite the risks—real and imagined.

Glenn Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee. His most recent book, An Army of Davids, can be found at

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