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Nanotechnology's Shadow

Nanotechnology has become the newest buzzword, lighting up enthusiasm on Wall Street and sparking articles about its potential. But the growing adulation aimed at this field of study clouds not only where nanotechnology stands today on the scale between hype and the gravity of reality, but what impacts its advancements will have on the world and, more importantly, what the world's response will be to its progress.

Covering a large array of scientific work, nanotechnology refers to all research that manipulates components or molecules that are measured in a nanometer—that's one millionth of a millimeter.

So why all the positive hysteria about what would be conceived by the average person as little more than particle pushing in a florescent-lighted lab? Because, in plainspoken language, this technology aims to change the way atoms behave. And by concentrating the efforts on particles at such a micro level, and pinpointing each atom within an object, that object can be built more precisely and much more efficiently, say the experts.

Being able to zero in and manipulate at the atom level sounds an arduous task enough, but that's just the beginning. The next step is assembling those controlled atoms together. And after that feat, the forming object will still require replicators to be able to do the work of all the assemblers, say nano-techies. The work, according to the Foresight Institute, is moving from simple nanoparticle materials to smart materials. Devices will be next. Then, it's "productive nanosystems—building macroscale products to atomic precision," according to the institute.

While experts say it's still the early days of the research, nanotechnology has been around for years. During its lifespan, the technology has already gone through its own hype stage, say those in the industry. But the cycle has turned again, and nanotechnology has once more caught the eyes and dollars of expert investors and tech prognosticators.

They can't be blamed for getting excited. After the computer industry rocket ride, the Internet boom and bust, the telecom fireworks, and the mobile-phone mushroom syndrome, the world is ready to pounce on another phenomenon in technology. Nanotechnology looks ripe to fit the bill, and has the research to back it up.

"Those working in the field seriously are focused on real achievement; neither the hype nor the anti-hype has big effects on them," states Christine Peterson, vice president at Foresight Institute, a California-based think tank that educates on the issues of nanotechnology. "These real achievements require a huge amount of work—it's even harder to get atoms to do what you want than it is with bits. That's the stage we are in with nanotech—a long slog of difficult work. But the payoffs will be huge."

Where those payoffs will be the biggest is most likely medicine, say executives, in treatment techniques, early detection, and cost of care. "The long-term potential of nanomedicine is astonishing," says Peterson. "Even today researchers are having wonderful early results, especially in treating cancer." Down the road, she predicts that surgeons will be using medical devices that can repair physical damage at the molecular level. "There aren't any diseases that we can't tackle with tools so powerful."

Technology is another area that will reap the rewards of the study of the small. At a nanotech conference held in New York in May, Jeffrey Jaffe, the president of Bell Labs Research and Advanced Technologies reportedly spelled out a futuristic vision supported by nanotech, where wireless sensors, cameras, and transmitters dot a communications network allowing people to experience a more personal connection—complete with smells and nuances—when they were talking to someone far away.

On the more practical side for computing, nano will mean better communications. Think of improving the life of batteries for cell phones or improving the screens of our computers. In five to 10 years, the typical 3G phone will use organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) that outperform a liquid crystal display at 20% lower cost, says David Lackner, senior analyst at Lux Research, an analyst firm. That phone will likely also sport a nano-enabled memory chip, which takes up less space, costs less money, and consumes less power than its predecessor. He adds that new computing paradigms will emerge based on nanotechnology. "Firms are out there already working on a variety of different approaches to the nano-enabled memory chip," Lackner says, pointing to Natero's use of carbon nanotubes, Zettacore's use of organic porphyrin molecules, and Freescale and Altis using spintronics.

With the help of nano, the consumer electronics devices we love are getting even more tantalizing. Communications giant Motorola this spring announced the use of carbon nanotubes deposited into glass. The result: a display panel on a TV is less than 3.3 millimeters thick.

For the broader sense of communication, the innovation in nanotechnology will mean the decrease in price and increase in availability in hardware, which would close the digital divide and have a positive domino effect around the world, says Peterson. "We would finally be in the age of ubiquitous computing and communications," she says. "This would have huge economic effects in terms of increasing globalization, and huge political effects as we have seen in recent years where societies demand democracy using their new communication tools."

Not a bad goal for a technology that lists its claims to fame as the miracle ingredient in Dockers pants (it keeps them from wrinkling and staining) and golf balls that offer better flight. There's more on the practical side for nanotechnology applications, proponents say, pointing to safer and more functional automobiles, for instance. "Nanocomposite body moldings and nanocoatings are already in high-volume applications in Toyota, GM, and Mercedes-Benz," says Lackner. "By 2008, elastomeric nanocomposite tire coatings and nanoscale catalysts for catalytic converters will appear, both adding functionality like reduced emissions, which reduce costs."

No wonder governments and tech behemoths like Intel, IBM, 3M, and Lucent Technologies are already knee-deep in nanotech, or that so many smaller companies, have waded into the pond.

Last year, U.S. companies devoted more than $400 million for nanotech research and business incubation programs. And that's above and beyond the more than $1 billion coming from the federal government, which makes nanotech "the largest publicly funded science initiative since the space race," according to the report Benchmarking U.S. States for Economic Development from Nanotechnology by Lux Research. For its part, Internet pioneer National Science Foundation (NSF) launched its own program propelling the technology, called the National Nanotechnology Initiative. "The systematic control of matter at the nanoscale has the potential to yield revolutionary technologies for electronics, medicine, aeronautics, the environment, manufacturing, and homeland security," states the government agency. "Because nanotechnology is expected to bring profound economic and social impacts over the coming decade, leadership in nanotechnology development will be crucial to future U.S. competitiveness in the global economy." While nanotech initiatives are led by the U.S. in terms of spending, Asia and Europe are close behind, with $1.6 billion for Asia and $1.3 billion for Europe, reports CNET.

But even with the big bucks behind nanotech, some experts say the science requires such a huge investment, it's off limits to most, and that the sector might not be as well funded as it appears. "The big hurdle is what is called the "valley of death"—the funding gap between a research demonstration and a business plan and team ready to fund," says Peterson. "There are very few funders operating in this space, and there are fewer "angel" funders these days after the dot-com bust."

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Tall Order

As with every modern advancement, the underbelly of nanotech's awesome potential and life-changing benefits—better medical care, improved quality of life, more security, super-sophisticated communications—the advancements, warn those in the nanotech drivers' seats, will bring on new perils as well. Nano-weaponry and nano particle toxicity will be as real a threat as stain-repelling fabrics are a convenience.

Then there are the cultural and ethical issues to contend with. Concerns surround the possibility of nanotechnology being used for more nefarious motives, in weapons especially. There's also the notion that nanotechnology's ability to make products better and cheaper could smash the economic and social paradigm for workers and the companies that employ them. Another potentially devastating consequence of nanotechnology is nanoparticle toxicity. Some experts warn that the tiny particles can infiltrate human cells and cause damage.

If experts are to be believed, the science of atom manipulation will shake the core of humans—literally. Nanotechnology shrinks the barrier between man and machine, says the Institute of Nanotechnology. "As computer equipment, surgical tools, and communications pipelines shrink ever smaller, the next step in engineering is to merge biological and mechanical molecules and compounds into really, really small machines," the institute states. "This will happen in many different ways, and it raises many new issues."

This concern is rippling in nanotech circles, where the ethical issues that will arise from the study and practice of matter manipulation are crying out to be addressed before they surface. Earlier this year, a conference was held at the University of South Carolina, one of many such discussions going on around the world. With engineering and chemistry combining forces to make the particle behave in a certain way, the way humans interact with objects, and the line between humans and objects, becomes blurred.

"Virtually all areas of human life may be transformed, and these transformations will likely involve both great benefit and great risk," the USC conference's discussion points ominously state. The interest in ethics is a global pursuit. Nanotech Web reported in May that four organizations in the U.K.—Greenpeace, the Guardian, the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration on Nanotechnology at Cambridge University, and the University of Newcastle's Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre—have formed a "citizen's jury" to debate and discuss public concerns stemming from nanotechnology's progress.

As researchers continue toiling away with the painstaking work of manipulating particles, society should be prepared to discuss the possible ramifications that such progress will bring on. Because one thing is becoming clear under the nanotech umbrella: The study of the small will force world-altering decisions, sooner rather than later.

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Meg McGinity Shannon ( is a technology writer based on Long Island, NY.

©2005 ACM  0001-0782/05/0900  $5.00

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