San Francisco Chronicle
July 26, 2004


Possibilities range from disaster to advances in medicine, space

by Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer

Nanotechnology could revolutionize science, technology,
medicine and space exploration.

Nanotechnology could ravage the environment, eliminate jobs and
lead to frightening new weapons of war.

Those are two extreme takes on the hottest, and potentially
most controversial, new technology since biotech and PCs.

For years, science fiction writers and techno-visionaries have
imagined the construction of "nano"-size -- one nanometer
equals a billionth of a meter -- molecules and machines that
could clean cholesterol from your bloodstream, break down
chemical spills and lead to superstrong new materials. The late
physicist Richard Feynman once said, "There's plenty of room at
the bottom" -- by which he meant humans could re-engineer atoms
and molecules to do humanity's bidding.

But there have also been warnings of nano-machines that might
race out of control, mass-replicating like bacteria and
reducing Earth's surface into what a few nanotechnologists call
a "gray goo."

Few experts take that scenario seriously, but in recent months,
the less frightening potential health and environmental impacts
of nano-gadgets have drawn increasing attention.

The possibility that one type of nanotech -- large carbon
molecules called fullerenes -- damages fish brains is described
in this month's issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.
It's just the latest in a series of studies by researchers
around the world who are investigating the impacts of
fullerenes and other nanotechnologies on health and

"It is likely than nanomaterials can affect wildlife if they
are accidentally released into the environment. ... (It) is
possible that effects in fish may also predict potential
effects in humans," said the article's author, Eva Oberdorster
of Southern Methodist University. She based the warning on her
study of the impact of fullerenes on the brains of largemouth
bass in a fish tank.

Discovered in the 1980s, fullerenes are the third known type of
pure carbon molecules; the others are diamond and graphite. The
name is short for "Buckminsterfullerenes," a moniker that the
discoverers of the molecule (who later won the Nobel Prize)
awarded in honor of the late architect-engineer Buckminster

Fuller had nothing to do the discovery of fullerenes, but their
soccer ball shape reminded the scientists of a two-sided
version of his famous geodesic domes. The molecules also are
known familiarly as "buckyballs," each of which contains 60 or
70 carbon atoms.

This year, Mitsubishi Corp. is planning to manufacture
thousands of tons of buckyballs. Their many possible
applications range from carrying drugs to various parts of the
body, like tiny submarines, to use in new types of electronic

Although Oberdorster stresses that the damage to the fishes'
brains is subtle and doesn't affect their behavior, her
discovery suggests that industry should "go cautious" in
mass-manufacturing fullerenes, lest they leak into the

"If such preventative principles had been applied to compounds
such as DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), significant
environmental damage could have been avoided," she writes in
her article.

She's not alone in her observations. About 20 papers were
published in 2003 and 2004 about the impact of fullerenes on
animals and cell cultures, but there were "disagreements in
data from different laboratories," said an April report by E.
Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology
Coordination Office, which is funding extensive research into
the health and environmental effects of fullerenes and other

Decades ago, chemical companies sometimes marketed new products
whose health and environmental impacts they hadn't adequately
tested. No longer, said chemistry Prof. Vicki Colvin of Rice
University -- in part because of the financial consequences of
lawsuits and widespread negative publicity.

"A lot of young chemists are committed to not letting that
happen again," said Colvin, who is also engaged in studying the
health effects of fullerenes. "Companies really have paid the
price, and they continue to pay the price, for ignoring
environmental concerns early in technology's history."

Still, optimism springs eternal.

"Nanoscience will make the physical sciences as sexy as the
life sciences were in the last 10 years," Rep. Zach Wamp,
R-Tenn., said at an Energy Department-run "NanoSummit" in late
June in Washington.

Despite the concerns of some scientists and environmentalists
about the possibly adverse impact of nanotechnologies, "we
don't have a fear of things going sour (for nanotechnology) in
the long term. ... The advance of the field is inexorable. It's
a powerhouse. This is not something that can be stopped," said
Christine Peterson, president of the pro-nanotechnology
Foresight Institute in Palo Alto.

At the DOE conference last month, Energy Secretary Spencer
Abraham praised nanotech's economic potential. But he also
cautioned the 340 attendees: "Major questions such as the
ethical and safety implications of advanced nanoscience
research and the proper role of government in this research
should be examined by groups such as this on a regular basis if
we are to see this technology flourish."

Insurance companies fear a repeat of the asbestos catastrophe,
which resulted in a deluge of lawsuits from the 1970s on and
severely strained their coffers.

"Questions abound regarding the opportunities and, from an
insurance perspective, the hazards of nanotechnology," said a
report issued in May by the reinsurance firm Swiss Re. "What
makes nanotechnology completely new from the point of view of
insuring against risk is the unforeseeable nature of the risks
it entails and the recurrent and cumulative losses it could
lead to, given the new properties, hence different behavior, of
nanotechnologically manufactured products."

Nanotech recently caught the eye of Britain's Prince Charles,
who frequently speaks out on environmental issues. Writing in
the English newspaper Independent on July 11, he recalled the
thalidomide catastrophe of the 1960s, which left numerous
children deformed.

It "would be surprising if nanotechnology did not offer similar
upsets unless appropriate care and humility is observed," wrote
the future king.

Americans hold a somewhat contradictory view of nanotechnology.
On the one hand, they have a "generally positive" view of the
potential benefits and safety of nanotechnology -- yet at the
same time, "most Americans do not trust business leaders in the
nanotechnology (field) to minimize potential risks to humans,"
according to a telephone survey of 1,536 Americans released
July 14 by political scientist Michael Cobb and his colleagues
at North Carolina State University.

Specifically, 60 percent said they had "not much trust" in
nanotech businesses' sense of responsibility, and only 5
percent expressed "a lot" of trust.

In the survey, the most feared possible risk was "losing
personal privacy to tiny new surveillance devices," which was
cited as the No. 1 concern of 32 percent of the respondents.
Others expressed concern about a "nanotechnology- inspired arms
race," nanoparticles "that accumulate in your body," and "the
uncontrollable spread of self-replicating nano-robots" like
those depicted in the Michael Crichton novel "Prey."

Research into the safety issues around nanotechnology is
quickly becoming big science. Although it has been conducted
relatively quietly until recently, federal funding for research
into the health and environmental effects of nanotechnology is
heavy and has risen sharply in recent years, Teague's report
said. In federal fiscal year 2004, the funding is $106 million
(11 percent of the entire U.S. National Nanotechnology
Initiative budget), compared to $56 million in fiscal year

One of the recipients is Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
in Berkeley, which, according to Teague's document, is studying
topics that include ways that nanoparticles are transported and
altered in the environment, including within air, water, living
organisms and cells, including the cells' genetic material.
Other recipients of the funding include the Environmental
Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the
National Science Foundation (which, in turn, is funding studies
by UC Davis, UC Berkeley and other campuses), the Food and Drug
Administration, the Department of Defense and others.

Perhaps the most unusual proposed use of nanotechnology is for
the construction of an "elevator to space." Using superstrong
types of fullerenes known as carbon nanotubes, payloads could
be lofted into space via cables from orbiting platforms. Such a
cable would have to be extraordinarily strong -- stronger than
existing materials -- and some nanotechnology fans claim that
carbon nanotubes fill the bill. In theory, they're almost 100
times stronger than steel.

However, there's a catch: Carbon nanotubes, like other
fullerenes and nanotech materials, would be extremely small and
lightweight and could remain aloft indefinitely. If nanotubes
flaked off the space elevator, like rust off metal, they might
be inhaled by people or other organisms, with as-yet unknown
health or environmental effects.

"The effects of extremely small fibers in the tissues of the
body are unknown. ... Animal studies are only just beginning,"
said health physicist Ron Morgan of Los Alamos National
Laboratory in a September 2003 report on environmental issues
associated with the space elevator.

In an online copy of his report, he cautions researchers who
investigate the possible health effects of nanotubes to handle
them with care: "Don't be the guinea pig!"


Types of carbon molecules

Diamond -- Diamonds get their hardness by the way carbon atoms
are connected to each other in all three dimensions.

Buckminsterfullerene -- Commonly called "buckyballs" or
"fullerenes," this form of carbon can be manufactured but is
also found in nature. Scientists hope to use this carbon
molecule to deliver medicine and develop uses for electronics.

Nanotube -- Nanotubes are a type of fullerene. Nanotubes are
theoretically 100 times stronger than steel. Some proponents
envision nanotubes being used in a sort "elevator to space."

Graphite -- Pencil "lead" is made of graphite; two-dimensional
layers of carbon atoms called graphene that easily slip off the
point of a pencil when we write.

Source: Materials Research Science and Engineering Center;
University of Wisconsin

E-mail Keay Davidson at

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