Committee debates future of nanotechnology

Nanotechnology stands to revolutionise many fields of science, and is already making great leaps forward in chemical engineering, biotechnology, medical, and even cosmetic and leisure applications. However, without appropriate legislation, any environmental and health risks cannot be appropriately anticipated and dealt with.

A US Senate enquiry has heard from key names in the field of nanotechnology to examine current and future applications for nanotechnology, obstacles facing its development and safety and legislative aspects concerning its use.

Committee Co-Chairman US Senator Daniel K. Inouye delivered one of the opening speeches with a warning that the progress of nanotechnology resembles that of asbestos before any of its deleterious effects were known. Nanotechnology is fast on the way to becoming ubiquitous but only a small proportion of research money is being put towards environmental, health and safety issues, and even less to long-term studies.

Dr. Clayton Teague, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordinating Office reported that the US Federal government invests over $1 billion a year in nanotechnology. He highlighted photovoltaic cells as a major direction with obvious environmental and economic benefits. He emphasised the need for international cooperation to bring new applications to the fore. Tools for measuring and monitoring exposure to nanoparticles are in development and will be necessary for ongoing health and safety.

Dr. Richard Buckius, Acting Assistant Director for Engineering, National Science Foundation, highlighted two examples of how academic research will soon be paying off in the marketplace: researchers at the University of Kentucky have predicted that membranes made from aligned friction-free nanotubes, which allow fluids to flow through 100,000 times faster than other materials, could be used for filtration in chemical, pharmaceutical and dairy applications. NorthwesternUniversity has also developed a nanotechnological approach to detect a protein associated with HIV at concentrations much lower than previously possible.

Dr. Jeffrey Schloss, Co-Chair of the Nanomedicine Roadmap Initiative, National Institutes of Health, introduced some of the major applications of nanotechnology to medicine. Proof of principal has been achieved with nanoparticles that can detect cancer. When at the site of a tumour, they can release an imaging agent to be detected by a doctor, or disperse a treatment and afterwards disintegrate into harmless substances in the body.

Dr Schloss also discussed how nano sensors could be inserted in the skin or the body to detect specific substances, such as sugar levels in diabetics.

Dr. Mark Davis, Professor of Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology, said that the benefits of treating human disease with nanoparticle therapeutics far exceed potential safety risks, particularly for diagnosis and treatment of metastatic cancer. Nanoparticles are used for systemic applications in the human body because the small size allows them access to locations denied to larger particles. They can be engineered to enter cells.

While nanoparticles for therapeutic use have been safely tested and there is tremendous excitement about the future potential, concerns have been expressed over nanoparticle toxicity. These concerns are legitimate as little is known about how they behave in humans. Their size means they can access areas not previously available to larger particles.

Dr. Davis said the future holds for more consistently sized nanoparticles with ‘smart’ functions that allow them to activate at specified times and locations.

Dr. J. Clarence Davies, Senior Advisor on the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, WoodrowWilsonInternationalCenter for Scholars, discussed the strengths and weaknesses of US regulatory system with regard to managing the effects of nanotechnology.

Dr. Davies said the public’s view of nanotechnology is largely unformed. This gives the industry the opportunity to get it right and introduce this new technology to the public without incurring public opposition.

He went on to say that existing regulatory structure is inadequate as current health and environment laws were not designed with nanotechnology in mind. Ongoing research has shown that fine particles can be harmful if inhaled, for example. Particles this size could move to other organs from the lungs, but conventional toxicology tests do not adequately detect nanoparticles.

Currently, industry is subject to voluntary testing. But legislation must follow, as the greatest threat to the advance of nanotechnology is lack of public confidence.

Dr. Alan Gotcher, President and CEO, Altair Nanotechnologies, called for an initiative similar in scope to the Human Genome project, with the goal of establishing broad empirical data and models for the predictability of the environmental, health and safety risks of commercially interesting nanomaterials.

Gotcher described Altair products including its Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery materials that can enable the production of electric vehicles with the same acceleration and cruising speeds as conventional vehicles, and chemical and biological sensors that can detect and display information about life-threatening biohazards.

Dr. Todd Hylton, Director of the Center for Advanced materials and Nanotechnology, Science Applications International Corporation, examined the transition of nanotechnologies from the laboratory into the home.

According to Hylton, the current problem is that the transition timeframe is very long, up to 10 years. This is mainly due to access to intellectual property and hardware infrastructure. He introduced a new transition model, based around the creation of public/private partnership dedicated to technology transition.

The proceedings closed with a talk from Bryant Linares, President and CEO, Apollo Diamond, about the potential of nanotechnology. The market impact for nanotechnology may reach as high as $1 trillion by 2015.

Apollo Diamond uses nanotechnology to grow cultured diamonds for use in the semiconductor industry that are of the highest purity but cost the same as other semiconductor materials. The company’s process involves exposing thin slivers of diamonds (diamond seeds) to plasma gas of superheated carbon depositing carbon atom by atom to grow the diamonds. Introduction of other gases such as boron or nitrogen imparts other nano-scale features onto the surface or interior of the diamond.

Linares said diamond is beginning a 50-year growth curve as a semiconductor like silicon. He concluded by saying innovation is the key to America maintaining its competitiveness in nanotechnology.


Shortly before the senate hearing, UCLA announced that it has developed a new testing method that would help manufacturers monitor and test the safety and health risks of engineered nanomaterials.

Dr. Andre Nel, Professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), has developed a model which predicts toxicity according to the ability of some nanoparticles to generate toxic oxygen radicals, which are highly reactive forms of oxygen that can cause tissue injury, including inflammation and other toxic effects. For air pollution particles, this injury can translate into asthma and atherosclerotic heart disease.