Friday, May 19, 2006

Bad Nano?

I've noticed a growing number of articles, including this excellent one from Technology Review, cautioning against possible adverse effects of nanotechnology, or more specifically of materials produced at a scale measured in nanometers (a billionth of a meter.) This includes everything from "nano" sunscreen to the "Buckytubes" that have been mentioned as a possible means of storing hydrogen on board vehicles or in portable devices. By implication, something that has been regarded as holding tremendous potential for revolutionizing a wide range of activities, including manufacturing, healthcare and environmental protection, could be on its way to developing a PR problem as serious as that of genetically-modified food in Europe.

As the article describes, the "nanotechnology" label has been attached to a much broader array of items than suggested in Eric Drexler's original formulation in the 1980s. In some cases, this association is more hype than reality, but that won't matter if something like nano-sunscreen turns out to cause problems worse than the skin cancer it's intended to prevent. Concern about "bad nano" isn't exactly new. Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, made headlines a few years ago with his warnings against the "gray goo problem." Even though the threat that concerned him is essentially unrelated to the red flags being raised now, this could all be conflated by opponents to turn nano into a another Frankenstein's monster.

If I were advising firms working in this area, I would urge them to be rigorous and proactive in formulating standards for product labeling, manufacturing, worker safety and health testing. There's no question this would raise their costs, but that seems preferable to a serious risk that could truncate nanotechnology's contribution in many areas, including energy.

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