Nanotech Poses Big Unknowns

The Washington Post looks into some issues with nanotechnology. The first thing I noticed is that the industry realizes the public might not be all that fond of microscopic machines and that a backlash along the lines of the one against biotech and “Frankenfoods” in Europe might be on the way. When detailing what they are doing though it feels more like they are attacking this as a PR problem that simply needs to be worked around, not an opportunity to take the proper measures. Kind of reminds me of the tobacco industry.

The article also covers a lot of ground, including tests on mice and rats inhaling nanotubes resulting in all sorts of unpleasantness. Potential toxic site cleanup, followed by potential and the risks of “nano litter” released in the environment (no laws against that have been drafted yet). In fact, it’s already being used:

Last summer, for example, under contract to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Utah-based Sequoia Pacific Research Co. sprayed a proprietary “nanostructured solution” on 1,400 acres in New Mexico to try to stabilize the soil after forest fires destroyed the local vegetation. Company officials will not reveal the ingredients in their product, saying only that it does not contain engineered nanoparticles. It works, they said, by triggering cross-reactions among naturally occurring nanoparticles in the soil.

The biggest problem so far seems to be that known materials, like gold and graphite for example, react completely differently at the nano level, they don’t have the same properties. All rules and regulations have to do with products that aren’t at the nano level so a factory producing nanotubes (there already are some, producing material for tennis balls and rackets for example) answers to rules for graphite which nanotubes are an “evolution” of but in fact they don’t interact the same way with humans and the environment, it’s a new technology following old regulations.

You can’t simultaneously proclaim a product is new and has all these novel properties and at the same time claim that it can be regulated as if it were nothing different… …You can’t have it both ways. If these have new properties, they have to be examined and regulated that way.

There’s a lot of potential in this new industry, the potential for a “third industrial revolution” but also the potential for massive problems.