Washington Post
March 29, 2005


By Rick Weiss

The science of the very small is getting big in the United States.
Americans are investing more money, publishing more scientific papers
and winning more patents than anyone else in the quickly growing field
of nanotechnology, according to the first comprehensive federal report
on the science of things only a few hundred millionths of an inch in

But the nation's lead may be short-lived, the report warns, as Europe
and Asia show evidence of gaining.

Moreover, important questions about the technology's safety and
oversight remain unanswered and under-studied, the report concludes.
Research on the health effects of nanomaterials -- and necessary
revisions in the way they are regulated -- are lagging, government
officials said, even as the novel materials find their way into an
ever-widening spectrum of products, including clothing, cosmetics and
computer hard drives.

The toxicity studies now underway are "a drop in the bucket compared
to what needs to be done," John H. Marburger III, science adviser to
President Bush and chief of the White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy, said at a media briefing last week.

Nanotechnology, which deals with materials and devices manufactured on
the scale of billionths of a meter, is widely touted as the engine of
the next industrial revolution. The promise is not so much its ability
to produce ever smaller and more efficient machines -- although that
is certainly one aspect of its attraction. The main benefit of gaining
control over such tiny bits of matter is that ordinary materials
behave in extraordinary ways when shaved down to the scale of atoms
and molecules.

Platinum, for example, which is at the heart of catalytic converters,
removes pollutants from auto exhaust far more efficiently as
nanoparticles. That can reduce the quantities of the expensive metal
needed -- and the amount that ends up in junkyards and dumps.

Similarly, unlike larger chunks of carbon -- such as the graphite in
pencils, which does not conduct electricity well -- microscopically
thin nanotubes of carbon are excellent conductors of electricity.
Before long, they may replace copper wire for some applications.

The new report is the work of the President's Council of Advisors on
Science and Technology, a 24-member committee of experts from
industry, academia and research institutions tasked with periodically
assessing the nation's nanotech research and development programs. The
first such report, prepared with the help of dozens of outside
experts, is scheduled to be released next month but was previewed at a
council meeting last week.

In terms of global competitiveness, the report offers good news for
the United States -- at least for now.

"The data seem to conclusively say we are the leader," said E. Floyd
Kvamme, co-chairman of the committee with Marburger. "But the data
also conclusively say that a lot of others are getting interested."

For example, fully 50 percent of the research articles on "nano"
published in the world's best scientific journals has come from U.S.
labs, even though the United States accounts for only about 25 percent
of global investment. The United States also leads in the number of
nano-related patents, with about 1,000 issued in 2003, the last year
for which statistics are available.

But U.S. dominance in publications has begun to shrink. And while
Americans hold fully two-thirds of all recent nano patents, the
fraction has been shrinking as other countries grab a bigger portion
each year.

Similarly, with a federal investment in nanotechnology of about $1
billion last year, the United States outspent every other country,
including the entire European Union. But Japan, China and Europe are
all close behind, in the $900 million range each, with growth rates
comparable to U.S. increases.

The U.S. spending lead is being boosted by unparalleled private
investment (accounting for nearly half of the $4 billion spent by
corporations and venture capital globally) and a major investment by
the states, which see nano as a ticket to revitalizing old industrial

"The states are spending mountains of money," Kvamme said -- about 40
cents for every federal dollar of investment. "They are the folks
turning this into a commercial enterprise."

That enterprise is still very young. For the next five years, the
report predicts, nanotechnology will for the most part produce novel
materials such as the stain-proof fabrics and super-strong tennis
rackets already on the market, as well as catalysts and other products
useful to the chemical industry.

Longer term, the field is expected to produce medical products,
including nanospheres that attach themselves to tumor cells and then
fatally fry them, and novel materials for absorbing poisons from the
environment. Further out, scientists envision development of "bio-
enhancement" nanoproducts that would give people greater strength,
better vision and perhaps even computer-assisted thinking -- goals
that raise ethical issues that already are "very much on Congress's
mind," Marburger said.

The report notes that the extreme chemical reactivity of nanomaterials
makes them potentially toxic. The threat to consumers seems modest, it
concludes, but may be significant for factory workers exposed to

To date, however, federal regulations limiting exposures do not
differentiate between bulk quantities of chemicals and their
potentially much more toxic nanoparticulate forms.

"Existing rules for exposure to bulk substances don't apply" and will
need to be changed, Marburger said. One of the things holding that up,
he added, is the need to work out an internationally agreed upon
naming system for the new materials so that everyone will be talking
the same chemical and regulatory language.

Even if nanomaterials are relatively safe while embedded in larger
products, it will be important to find out how they will affect the
environment and human health after those products wear out, said David
Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which
is studying that issue with Yale University scientists.

"Who knows what happens when you grind this stuff up, incinerate it or
it goes into a landfill?" Rejeski asked. "These products may be safe
in the tennis racket, but all products become obsolete at some point"
-- if nothing else because they go out of fashion.

"Those teal-colored nanopants are going to be out of style next year,"
he said, only half-joking. "Then what?"

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