Many of the science fiction novels Glenn Seaman read as a boy were set in high-tech worlds he never thought could exist. But over the years, Seamen, now in his 50s, has watched technology bring humankind closer to realizing once-fantastical ideas, like supercomputers, artificial intelligence and deep space travel. Because of this, he sees no reason why today's science fiction can't be tomorrow's reality.
"The laws of nature constantly seem to be changing," he says. "Any time there is an absolute, it seems we at some point transcend it."
As a member of the Citizens' Coalition on Nanotechnology, Seaman meets weekly with other residents to discuss nano developments and the health, environmental and ethical issues raised by this rapidly advancing technology, which some experts have dubbed the "next Industrial Revolution."
"It's coming," says Glenn Seamen, who is both excited and worried about the vast number of innovations nanotechnology will usher in. "And we know it's coming for one huge reason: The world is still driven by money."
Over the last decade, nanotechnology has begun to quietly reshape nearly every industry across the globe. In 2005, the United States spent $1.3 billion on nanoresearch and development, an amount President Bush has vowed to double. The private sector provides an additional $2 billion annually for research and development.
More than 30 countries are now investing in nanoresearch. The National Science Foundation predicts that, over the next decade, global nanotechnology spending will exceed $1 trillion.
There isn't a singular definition for nanotechnology; basically, it refers to working with materials on the nanometer scale. An ordinary sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanoscience focuses on the 1- to 100-nanometer range, a parameter wherein weird things happen.
"When materials are made smaller, their properties change," explains UW-Madison professor and chemical engineer Dr. Nick Abbott. "So rather than engineering a material's property through composition, the notion is that you just change the size. And that's pretty radical, actually."
And since nanotechnology entails countless unknowns and a high potential for abuse, more and more people like Seaman are calling for guidelines to promote responsible research and development. Several high-profile scientists are pushing the government to take the lead on safety issues, by providing better oversight and regulatory controls.
A variety of nanoparticles are already being used in more than 500 consumer products - from ice cream to house paint and clothing to cosmetics - without any oversight. Despite unknowns about toxicity, manufacturers aren't required to disclose whether a product contains nanoparticles. Nor are they required to perform toxicity tests to ensure that the particles are even safe, for humans or the environment.
Late last month, DuPont and Environmental Defense released a set of possible nanotechnology development guidelines in a serious effort to begin addressing potential risks. And the ETC Group, which investigates the environmental effects of new technologies, has called for a moratorium on the commercial development of nanoparticles.
But for the most part, nanotechnology is still operating in a regulatory vacuum.
Clueing in the public
"If you look at the amount of money they're spending on environmental and health safety research, it is tiny," says Dr. Maria Powell, an assistant scientist at the UW-Madison's Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center. "And with this little funding, it's going to be difficult to address the data gaps that we have about where these particles are going and how we can measure them. When you start talking about the risks, the same properties that make these particles so exciting can also make them potentially more toxic."
The UW-Madison is one of at least 15 major American institutions doing pioneering research in nanotechnology. Like the others, it has received millions of dollars in government and private-sector funding.
Since 1996, two campus centers have been established to focus exclusively on nanoscale science. However, because nanotechnology reaches across disciplines, research is also conducted in most science departments on campus.
Yet despite the enormous amount of money being pumped into nanotech development, few people know much about it. That's one of the challenges faced by scientists like Powell. As she puts it, "Huge amounts of money are going into this right now, and when you have something that's being called the next Industrial Revolution, people ask, 'If this is so big, why haven't I heard about it?'"
According to a UW-Madison study published earlier this year in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, just 20% of 495 people surveyed had some grasp of what the technology was.
Two years ago, Powell helped organize a conference at the UW-Madison to pull ordinary people into the nanotech debate; 13 citizens turned out for three days of intensive discussions with scientists.
"We decided it would be nice to have these meetings where people could interact with the scientists," says Powell. "But we wanted it to go beyond that."
After the conference, the attendees wrote a report, including a series of nano-safety recommendations that they passed on to state policymakers. Among other things, they recommended better government oversight, more stringent consumer protections, and "whistleblower" protections for scientists who raise ethical concerns about research.
The conference also led to the formation of the Citizens Coalition on Nanotechnology, which continues to try to engage citizens, scientists and policymakers in discussions about this emerging field.
Powell agrees there's good reason to be concerned. For instance, she notes, many products now have nano-based coatings, made from particles with special antibacterial properties. Nano-sized titanium dioxide and silver nanoparticles, for example, are being used in washing machines, refrigerators, clothing, hair conditioners and suntan lotions.
"There's a lot of concern in the water-treatment field about all these antibacterial products, because if that gets into the waterways, it could really mess up the microbial balance," says Powell. "Allowing companies to sell these things, I don't think it's a wise idea from a public health standpoint. But it's very hard to get information about what companies are making."
Besides human health, there is much uncertainty over whether these particles are environmentally safe. The concerns are similar to those raised by most chemicals: Most, experts say, probably aren't harmful, but there will undoubtedly be some that are.
Moreover, nanoparticles are so small they're able to skirt the regulatory thresholds, especially in the air.
"Existing regulations are very contingent on being able to know if they're out in the environment," says Powell. "You have to be able to measure them, and if you can't measure them, you can't say that they're there. One of the things that is very much missing right now is funding for development of adequate monitors for these things in the environment."
But even if these sensors did exist, new regulations would have to be written specifically targeting nanoparticles, a step that has been successfully stalled, in part, by nanoparticle patent holders. (Nanoparticles are considered patent-worthy on the grounds that their unique properties are discoveries that merit trade-secret protections.) Yet some patent holders and nano industries argue that new regulations aren't needed because the particles are just smaller versions of already regulated materials.
Sensors at work
"You've got to have a plan to start with," says Dr. Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "That's a mission that has to come from government, because they're investing so much into nanotechnology. And, at some high level, somebody has got to identify what we need to know to develop this technology safely. That is essential."
Nanotechnology isn't a technology as much as it is a toolbox for doing common things differently. As a science, it is perched on the edge of disciplinary boundaries, drawing from a broad range of scientific expertise.
All materials can be partitioned into nano-sized particles, the scale where new properties emerge. Nanoparticles can also be synthetic creations, with geometries and chemical properties that don't occur in nature. The trick is figuring out how to exploit these new properties to achieve certain goals.
For instance, nanoparticles can make clothing more stain-resistant. They are added to paints to break down dirt so houses become, in effect, self-cleaning. They are put in food to enhance coloring and used to coat packaging with antibacterial agents.
In 2001, chemical engineer Nick Abbott, virologist Barbara Israel and cell biologist Chris Murphy founded Platypus Technologies. The company is built on the intellectual foundation laid by Abbott's work at the UW-Madison with liquid nanocrystals similar to those used in some computer screens. Abbott realized that 1- to 5-nanometer crystals could be used to create a radically new kind of sensor, able to detect very small things, like proteins, diseases and, potentially, nanoparticles.
"What we've been able to show is that molecules in a liquid crystalline material talk to each other over really long distances," says Abbott. "So, if there's a nanoscopic event that occurs on a surface [and] we probe that surface with this liquid crystalline material, it will convert this phenomenon occurring at the nanometer scale into a phenomenon large enough that you can see it optically."
The molecules can also provide a real-time analysis of what is in the air. "We don't understand all of the rules yet," says Abbott. "But what we do know is that if, for example, West Nile Virus binds to the surface, or influenza or hepatitis, there's a signature that is amplified into the optical sphere, and we can look at it and say that there's a certain type of thing on the surface."
Abbott expects the sensor, which will help epidemiologists trace pathogen migration, will be available in about 18 months. But the first product the company plans to launch, early this fall, gives researchers a new tool for studying cell migration, a physiological process important to tissue regeneration, wound healing and tumor growth. The cell migration assay will let cancer researchers take more targeted approaches toward manipulating specific migration behaviors.
In addition to millions from private investors, Platypus has received $17 million in government funding, some from the Department of Defense. The agency is interested in another sensor being developed by Platypus to detect the presence of biological or chemical warfare agents.
Ultimately, Chris Murphy foresees thousands of these sensors strung throughout airports and subway systems. But initially, he expects it'll be used by investigators seeking data about the origin of disease: "There's a big effort under way right now to monitor children exposed over time to low-levels of pesticides and trying to understand how that affects their development."
Murphy says scientists are only "at the middle of the beginning" of developing nanotechnology. And he agrees more needs to be done to study the risks.
"It's very important that scientists and society take a hard look and see whether there is a toxic element to it," he explains. "All you have to do is go back in history and you can come up with a number of incidences where the human race would've been better served by being a little more circumspect and looking at the technologies coming."
Assessing the danger
In 1985, a trio of researchers using a tunnel-scanning microscope discovered a 60-sided carbon molecule they named the fullerene (after R. Buckminster Fuller, the architect who popularized the geodesic dome). The discovery earned them the Nobel Prize for physics 11 years later. By then, fullerenes were already being studied, modified and mass-produced.
"They can do amazing things now with these materials," says Powell. "They're talking about putting drugs inside the fullerenes and putting them inside the body, where they open at the right time, in the right place, and, voilà!, you have a nice way to target a cancer cell."
Carbon, at the microscale, is inert. But as it is subdivided, its surface-to-volume ratio increases and it becomes reactive. Electronic and conductive properties change, and new fluorescent properties emerge. (Gold, for example, turns glowing red at the nanoscale and melts at room temperature.)
Fullerenes are carbon nanoparticles which, when paired with other atoms and molecules, take on even more unusual and exciting properties. On the market since the early 1990s, fullerenes are used in a variety of products, from stain-resistant clothing, bicycle frames, tennis rackets and body armor. They are being studied for possible pharmacological uses, including neurological drugs.
And, because they're strong antioxidants, fullerenes are widely used in cosmetics, despite considerable debate over their safety.
Last June, Friends of the Earth released a study entitled, "Nanomaterials, Sunscreens and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients, Big Risks." In the report, the 40-year-old environmental advocacy group wrote, "Carbon fullerenes, which are used in some face creams and moisturizers, have antibacterial properties and have been found to cause brain damage in fish.... Even low levels of exposure to fullerenes have been shown to damage human liver cells."
Because nanoparticles are used in a diverse range of products, it's difficult to pinpoint any one area that should cause particular concern. But Maynard, of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, says there are things people can consider to help gauge the risks.
"The chances of you being exposed to the nanotech in computer chips is pretty minimal," he says. "On the other hand, if you've got a cosmetic that you're putting on your skin with nanoparticles, the exposure will be much higher."
Maynard's group works to promote responsible nanotech policies in government and private industry. But so far, it doesn't appear that prudence is a priority.
In 2005, Maynard analyzed claims that the government spends $50 million annually on nano-risk research. He could only verify $11 million spent on targeted risk research, less than 1% of the $1.3 billion total for research and development.
"Either way you look at it, there's not that much research going toward understanding risk, and, more important, there doesn't seem to be an overall strategy," he says.
That means, at least for now, that there remain a lot of unknowns.
"If you look at titanium dioxide, the particles in sunscreens, there's a lot of information we don't have," says Maynard. "But fortunately, we have the benefit of hindsight in looking at other materials, and the evidence suggests they're pretty safe. Whereas with the fullerenes, the data gap there is larger. We just don't have the information."
Brave new world
Researchers say it's unlikely there will be a watershed moment that defines the arrival of nanotechnology. But the vast sums of money being spent on research ensure that nanotech will continue to rapidly transform technologies in ways that are unseen and not well understood. And that makes some folks uneasy.
"When I plug in my TV, I'm not afraid of being electrocuted, because I trust those standards," says Glenn Seaman. "That level of trust has not been established yet in terms of nanotechnology."
But beyond a lack of trust that the materials are safe are concerns about nanotech's potential for other kinds of abuse. "I'm reading about sensors that are being embedded invisibly into paint, where you can walk into a room and it can sense a lot about you," says Powell. "Now that's futuristic, but they are working on it."
The idea of molecular machines - popularized by author Michael Critchon as self-replicating nanobots in his novel - is a controversial one. So far, it's the stuff of fiction. And Prince Charles' fear that nanotechnology could turn the planet into "gray goo" is even more unlikely, if not laughable. But at least one company is selling a nano-product with creepy properties and potential risks.
Evidust, created by Evident Technologies in Troy, N.Y., exploits the variable infrared frequencies of quantum dots. The dust can be sprinkled over an area and adhere to people who pass through.
"Evidust would act as a superior tracking device, sticking for days to the boots and clothing of combatants," states the company's Web site. "Evidust can [also] serve as an anti-trespass device, operating as an alert signal when unwanted intruders enter a monitored compound."
Quantum dots do have a number of practical uses, as in house lighting and paint. The problem is that they typically have lead or cadmium cores, and Powell thinks putting more heavy metals in products is a bad idea. "From a public health standpoint, it's outrageous," she says. "Especially since we're still dealing with problems from lead and mercury."
Maynard agrees that government, industry and the public are only just beginning to grapple with the ethical and regulatory issues that nanotech presents.
"A lot of what we've been doing is providing information, raising awareness, getting people to think critically about these issues," he says. "The only way we can make good, informed decisions is by carrying out more research. It has to be very targeted research, research that asks very specific questions."