Science and Technology Innovation Program

The Promise of Nanotechnology

Cover story from the May 2007 issue of Centerpoint

May 01, 2007

The Wilson Center launched the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in 2005 to help jumpstart and shape the nation's understanding of nanotechnologies and to aid policymakers in assessing industry and government readiness to manage its implications. The Project is an initiative of the Wilson Center and The Pew Charitable Trusts, which just extended its commitment to the Project with an additional $3 million over the next two years.

Nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate and manufacture particles between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide.

The market opportunity is substantial. Nanotechnology has been incorporated into billions of dollars worth of manufactured goods. An online inventory maintained by the Project since March 2006 contains nearly 400 manufacturer-identified, nanotechnology-based consumer products already on the market. The inventory includes a range of fitness, food, electronic, automotive, and home and garden products, and the rapid pace of commercialization will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Many business and government leaders describe nanotechnology as "the next Industrial Revolution," yet the environmental and health impacts remain unknown, and there is great need to assess and study the implications and how institutions can adapt to this new technology. By publishing reports, hosting seminars, conducting surveys, and testifying at congressional and agency hearings, the Project seeks to inform industry, government, and the public about nanotechnology's potential hazards as well as the vast benefits and future opportunities.

Health Opportunities
Nanomedicine is a rapidly growing field that holds the promise of new vaccines, medical treatments, and cures. By manipulating molecules, scientists will be able to create drugs that treat cancer, engineer materials to replace diseased organs, repair nerve damage, and improve prosthetic limbs, among many other medical breakthroughs.

A new report, Nanofrontiers: Visions for the Future of Nanotechnology, released by the Project in conjunction with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), summarizes discussions that took place at the Wilson Center among dozens of scientists, engineers, ethicists, policymakers, and other experts on the long-term potential of nanotechnology.

One section of the report focuses on the groundbreaking work of biologists and chemists in revolutionizing medicine. One such scientist, Dr. Samuel I. Stupp, director of the Institute of BioNanotechnology in Medicine at Northwestern University, suggests that nanotechnology can be used to mobilize the body's own healing abilities to repair or regenerate damaged cells, and his early clinical studies have yielded incredible results. His work has implications for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, both diseases in which key brain cells stop working properly. Similarly, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health, envisions nanotechnology leading to a radical transformation in health care, making it more predictive, preemptive, and personalized.

Dr. Stupp said about his work with laboratory animals, "By injecting molecules that were designed to self-assemble into nanostructures in the spinal tissue, we have been able to rescue and re-grow rapidly damaged neurons. The nanofibers—thousands of times thinner than a human hair—are the key to not only preventing the formation of harmful scar tissue which inhibits spinal cord healing, but to stimulating the body into regenerating lost or damaged cells."

Advances in nanotechnology have the potential to improve health benefits for the more than five billion people in the developing world. At a Wilson Center seminar in March, Dr. Peter A. Singer, senior scientist at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, said, "Nanotechnology might provide less-industrialized countries with powerful new tools for diagnosing and treating disease, and might increase the availability of clean water."

But there are numerous obstacles. "Business has little incentive to invest as shown by the lack of new drugs for… diseases that disproportionately affect people in developing countries," Singer said. Meanwhile, he added, government foreign assistance agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do not focus, or focus adequately, on how nanotechnology could improve health in developing countries.

"Countries like Brazil, India, China and South Africa have significant nanotechnology research initiatives that could be directed toward the particular needs of the poor," noted Dr. Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project. "But there is still a danger—if market forces are the only dynamic—that small minorities of people in wealthy nations will benefit from nanotechnology breakthroughs in the health sector, while large majorities, mainly in the developing world, will not. Responsible development of nanotechnology must include benefits for people in both rich and poor nations and at relatively low cost."

Green Nano
With nanotechnology advances, however, comes the accompanying responsibility of safeguarding the environment. In April, the Project released another report, titled, Green Nanotechnology: It's Easier Than You Think, describing the ability to minimize environmental and human health risks associated with nanotechnology manufacturing and to encourage replacing existing products and processes with new, environmentally friendly options.

Eventually, the hope is that "green nano" might even help solve preexisting environmental problems. The basis for this new field of research is combining "green chemistry," which aims to prevent waste and minimize the use of toxic chemicals, with "green engineering," which focuses on designing and building more energy-efficient products from biodegradable materials.

Whether researchers are reengineering products or creating new environmentally friendly products, such as solar cells and water filters, there is an important opportunity to use environmentally friendly methods from the start. Barbara Karn, visiting environmental scientist at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, said, "Nanotechnology offers us the opportunity to make products and processes green from the beginning."

Safety and Oversight
With hundreds of nanotechnology-enabled products already on the market and many more in the commercial pipeline, a recent report, titled Thinking Big About Things Small: Creating an Effective Oversight System for Nanotechnology, by Mark Greenwood, a former senior Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official, urges policymakers to push for an oversight system that will address health and safety issues particular to nanoscale materials and devices. The Wilson Center launched this report at a seminar in March.

"The oversight of nanotechnology will require ‘out of the box' thinking," said David Rejeski, director of the Project. "As an alternative, this report suggests that a number of statute-independent questions need to be answered by government, industry, NGOs and other stakeholders."

Another important issue is nanotech workplace safety. "Greater resources and attention are needed now on nanotechnology occupational health and safety research in order to ensure safe nano-workplaces," said Maynard. "Little is known about potential risks in many areas of nanotechnology—and funding for risk-focused research is a small fraction of the nearly $10 billion spent annually by governments and industry on nanotechnology commercial applications." However, he noted at a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office public meeting in January, to achieve these results, "risk research needs a plan and the U.S. government must move urgently to develop and implement such a coordinated and systematic risk research effort."

The Project plans to continue its analysis on the long-term effects of nanotechnologies through a series of innovative foresight, public engagement, and policy-relevant activities. "The next two years are critical to ensuring the future success of nanotechnology. All parties—government, industry, and society—must step up the attempt to anticipate nanotechnology's potential impact," said Rejeski. "By developing a window into the future of nanotechnology, we will be better prepared to move forward in a more safe, responsible, and ultimately productive manner."

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