WASHINGTON – Air purifiers, cosmetics, sports equipment, computers, clothing, bedding, household appliances, medical devices. Nearly every item of daily life could be made — and made better, say supporters — with nanotechnology.
But with billions spent by U.S. taxpayers and private industry on nanotechnology research and product development, some policymakers, scientists and business leaders are still trying to figure out exactly what nanotechnology is, what it can do and whether it is harmful to consumers.
"It's very, very broad. ... It's like everything and the kitchen sink is nanotechnology," said Christine Peterson, who has been following nanotech issues since before most people knew nanotechnology existed.
She founded the Foresight Nanotech Institute in 1986 and is now its vice president for public policy.
Nanotechnology is the broad term used to describe both materials constructed at the atomic and molecular levels and the research and development of them. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about .00000004 inches. As a matter of scale, a sheet of office copy paper is about .004 inches thick, or about 10,000 nanometers. Most of the materials created by nanotech researchers tend to be between 1 and 100 nanometers wide.
Peterson said she thinks the federal government isn't acting quickly enough to get nanotech research into regular use, though she qualified her criticism by saying it may not be possible.
"You know, I don't think it can," she said, explaining that massive changes in technology — aviation or open-heart surgery, for instance — have taken years to perfect and be declared safe. It's unrealistic, she said, for people to expect the government to be completely prepared for all the impacts of nanotechnology.
But Andrew Maynard, a scientist and research fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Institute for International Scholars, said the government is behind the private sector in developing uses and safeguards for nanotechnology products.
"The [federal] government is the conductor who is running after the train ... but the train is accelerating pretty fast," he said.
In March, Maynard's organization released what is believed to be the first listing of products that use nanotechnology and are available to the general public. The list is more than 200 products long. Maynard and his colleagues said that while his organization tried to include every product that boasts the use of the technology in its literature, the list is by no means exhaustive.
Buckyballs and Nanotubes
Among the creations credited to nanotechnology are buckyballs, microscopic balls made from carbon that can be used as lubricants, and nanotubes, tiny-sized additives used to strengthen metals or construction materials. Similar technology is being developed by scientists in the United States and around the world to combat cancer, improve fuel efficiency, fight lethal viruses like AIDS, harness solar power, make lighter materials for aircraft and remove air and water pollutants, to name a few.
But serious questions have arisen with the technology, including how the resources are being developed, how international trade of the materials should be handled, whether nanotechnology can or should be used to develop weapons and whether it poses any health risks.
Another question that is frequently asked is what the government's role is in protecting the public from would-be misuse or dangerous side effects of the products. Because developments in nanotechnology have the possibility of affecting any, and maybe every, manmade material, U.S. lawmakers say the federal government is going to continue to play an important role in both fostering its potential and protecting citizens from harm.
"As we move forward, we need to adequately address the potential safety concerns that are raised by this dynamic field of development and, at the same time, be cautious about introducing premature regulations that could unintentionally squelch the positive innovation that is occurring in the field," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation and Competitiveness, which recently held hearings on nanotechnology development.
"The potential economic and societal benefits of nanotechnology are truly endless," added Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the committee. "Since we still know so little about this emerging field, we must be diligent in understanding the health, safety and environmental consequences of nanotechnology and adopt appropriate safeguards to ensure this technology is deployed in a responsible way."
Federal Government Goes Nano
Five years since the government established its nanotech program — called the National Nanotechnology Initiative — this year's nanotech research budget is approximately $1.3 billion and the spending of it will involve about 150 universities nationwide, said Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, an agency nestled in the bureaucracy of a Cabinet-level advisory group, the National Science and Technology Council.
Teague is often called to testify before Congress, and it is his job to know what is going on with the nearly 40 government agencies that either are funding nanotechnology research, have some regulatory jurisdiction over it or have a vested interest in its use.
The agencies interested in nanotechnology include the departments of Defense, Energy, Commerce, Agriculture, Homeland Security and Transportation, as well as regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, research-oriented centers like the National Institutes of Health and the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health and about a dozen or so U.S. intelligence agencies.
Teague said that dozens of officials from different agencies meet regularly to discuss nanotechnology developments and to share new ideas. The council reports directly to the president. The subcommittee that Teague's office serves in the council has established a set of priorities for nanotechnology, forming the guiding documents on how the government intends to handle nanotech issues.
"With respect to how we coordinate across all the government agencies participating," the federal government is proceeding "quite carefully," he said.
Teague said the most important thing for government to do right now is to continue expanding its capacity to learn about nanoscience by funding research and helping to build facilities and laboratories specifically used for nanoscience.
But equally important, he said, is trying to find ways to put the research to use in the marketplace, and looking at what the societal implications might be, including the impact it might have on the health and safety of Americans.
"Everyone of them are critical investment areas ... [in] the ultimate bringing of this technology for benefiting our society," Teague said.
Several government offices are already being forced to grapple with nanotech problems. The Food and Drug Administration, for instance, last month announced it would hold a public meeting on nanotech issues to be held in October. The announcement was spurred by a scare in Germany where officials were forced to recall a product called "Magic Nano," a household cleaner that caused breathing problems in dozens of people around that country. It still isn't clear whether the product actually uses a nanotech material.
As a result of the incident in Germany, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which hasn't yet had any product recalls, is also looking into safety concerns. The agency has released a three-page policy statement on the issue, but officials there acknowledge that they still have much to learn.
"Because of the wide variation in potential health effects and the dearth of data on exposure and toxicity data of specific nanomaterials, CPSC staff is unable to make any general statements about the potential consumer exposures to or the health effects that may result from exposure to nanomaterials during the consumer use and disposal," the statement reads.
The statement goes on to say that one of the top priorities of the CPSC is to determine the type of nanomaterial in a product and then figure out a way to determine the potential health hazards. It also says that without any other specific regulation regarding nanotechnology — or any other product for that matter — CPSC doesn't begin looking at products until they hit the market.
"That's about as much as we've put out about" nanotechnology, said CPSC spokesman Mark Ross. "Basically, we're monitoring the situation and ... looking out for any possible problems that could develop."
Teague said that most other government agencies have similar policy statements, which can be accessed through his office's Web site.
Gargantuan Challenges Posed By Very Small Particles
While a number of congressional hearings have been held about the impact and developments of nanotechnology, one measure of Congress' interest suggests nanotechnology isn't really a priority: The Government Accountability Office, which produces more than 1,000 reports a year for Congress on topics of all kinds, had yet to receive a request for any report regarding nanotechnology by mid-April, an agency spokeswoman said.
Press aides for Ensign and Kerry did not respond to questions about what, if any legislative measures regarding nanotechnology were being considered.
Peterson and others say Congress has plenty of avenues on which to make its mark. Aside from the basic budgeting of nanoscience at the federal level, intellectual property rules need to be considered.
She said current patent law makes it easy for companies to sweep up patents given to universities, making it difficult for others to access the technology.
"It's potentially a problem, and some companies are complaining about the system," Peterson said. "The whole purpose of universities and research is to share information. ... This constrains the information from being shared."
From the academic side, Gary Rubloff, who directs the University of Maryland, College Park's nanotechnology research center, said it is taking a lot longer to get patents than in the past. Rubloff, who is also a researcher and acts as a liaison between university staff, public officials and the research community, said a slow patent process could end up tying the technology in litigation, or preventing investment dollars from getting where they need to be.
Peterson also pointed to international trade and its impact on the economy. She said she's heard discussions about limiting nanotech exports, especially ones that could hurt national security. But harsher controls could do more harm than good, she said.
Tighter controls might force a company with a controversial product to go overseas, and "then they're just totally out of our control. ... It's not clear that this is the way to go," she said.
Ethical questions over nanotechnology, however, could be the ones that decide whether nanotechnology truly catches on, or whether its potential remains untapped, said Nigel Cameron, director of the Center on Nanotechnology and Society at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
"This is a discussion about human values," Cameron said.
One of the last technological breakthroughs — genetically modified food — has been a major disappointment, and nanotech could suffer the same fate if it's not handled correctly. Europeans, in particular, label genetically modified products "Franken-food."
And like the genetically modified food discussion and genetics as a whole, nanotech developments raise deep philosophical questions over what it means to be human, and the change of the human condition.
"That conversation haunts every discussion about nanotechnology," Cameron said.
Cameron said one frightening development is so-called "transhumanism," where people might create things to replace human functions like thinking with nanotechnology.
While a technology could be used for a good purpose, like recovering from a stroke, "the same technology could allow you to have Google in your brain," Cameron said, which "raises huge questions for public policy."
Cameron said he also can foresee the use of nanotechnology further widening class divisions. With expensive nanotech solutions for cancer or other health problems, it's likely that those with the best health care would be able to get the new care and live longer whereas the poor would be left behind.
A Nano Future
Despite the pitfalls and the unknown direction that nanotechnology is headed, it's certain that it is here and will be around for years to come.
Teague, the government nanotech specialist, said no specific topic for nanotech research has taken a priority. Health care, energy, materials, environmental clean-up and the like are all being looked at equally, and that is one reason why nanotechnology is such an important subject, and also progressing at an uneven pace.
"I think it will be one of the most transforming technologies that have come to the fore, certainly in the last 100 years," Teague said. "Almost every aspect of life, I think, will ultimately be transformed by it."
And Rubloff, said regardless of the problems nanotech faces and the strides nanotech has made, the real focus is on the future.
"It's going to be the next industrial revolution. ... I think there's no doubt about it," Rubloff said.