International Herald Tribune, June 24, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: Stavros Dimas, the European Union's environment commissioner, last week emphasized both the potential benefits and dangers of nanotechnology, saying it was the duty of regulators "to ensure that society benefits from novel applications of nanotechnologies" while "fully applying the precautionary principle."]

By James Kanter

BRUSSELS: Nanotechnology -- the science of engineering products or substances down to one billionth of a meter in size -- has produced breakthroughs for manufacturers of consumer goods, including clear sunscreens, stain-resistant clothing and superstrong sports goods.

But the applications of nanotechnology could also be a boon for developing new ways to cut waste, clean up pollution and improve the energy efficiency of entire industries.

The problem is that some properties of these tiny particles are unknown, and potentially harmful, and scientists are still trying to determine whether their size affects their toxicity. For governments and other authorities that view commercialization of nanotechnology as a way to develop innovative environmental products and create new industries, the concerns present huge challenges.

Stavros Dimas, the EU environment commissioner, last week emphasized both the potential benefits and dangers of nanotechnology, saying it was the duty of regulators "to ensure that society benefits from novel applications of nanotechnologies" while "fully applying the precautionary principle."

Ensuring public acceptance of nanotechnologies could be particularly important in Europe, which has pledged to keep its economy humming while finding ways of reducing planet-warming emissions by as much as 30 percent by 2020. And even as scientists and environmentalists warn of the dangers of nanotechnology, authorities like the European Commission are pledging support for a wide range of projects.

Those projects include efforts to increase supplies of fresh water, which has become a scarce resource in southern European countries like Spain, where warmer conditions are contributing to shortages. EU officials say nanotechnology could be less expensive and more energy efficient than current methods for water recycling and desalination, which frequently rely on fossil fuels for power.

Using nanotechnology, water could be purified by using the equivalent of very fine nets operating at a molecular scale or by using tiny catalysts that speed up purification processes and, in some cases, mimic the work of enzymes.

Officials also say renewable energies like solar power could be made to work more efficiently using particles engineered through nanotechnology that capture and convert greater amounts of sunlight into electricity.

Financing for nanotechnology remains the greatest in the United States.

But the EU, Russia and Japan all are vying to be important players in a global market that could be worth up to ?2 trillion, or $3.1 trillion, and create 10 million new jobs over the next decade, according to the European Commission.

A substantial chunk of that market is likely to be for technologies for energy production and for cleaning up the environment, said Pekka Koponen, the managing director of Spinverse, a technology consulting firm in Finland.

He said green applications for nanotechnology could be used to help create energy-efficient fuel cells, solar cells and catalysts to filter out harmful emissions from factories and vehicles. He also said nanotechnology could be used to help recover oil from wells and tar sands, and be used for refining.

"Not everyone would count that as environmentally friendly, but that would at least save energy and cut back on emissions during oil production," Koponen said.

Other analysts say the greatest near-term benefit of nanotechnologies on energy use and the environment will be in reducing the weight of cars and aircraft, though they caution that some of the most important breakthroughs promised by nanotechnology still could be a decade or more away.

But by then, without more rigorous testing, scientists warn the technology could become as distrusted as genetically modified foods and nuclear power.

"Our policies are badly lagging behind what many companies already are doing," said Sylvia Speller, a professor of physics at the University of Nijmegen in The Netherlands. "I can't see right now who's going to pay for the damage if products turn out to harm people and the environment," she said.

Speller said the small particles used in nanotechnology could pose new risks to human health and the environment because they could penetrate biological barriers designed to keep out larger particles. She said she would not use products like sunscreens in her family that contain such materials out of concern about the long-term effects.

Environmental groups like Friends of the Earth Europe acknowledge that nanotechnology has the potential to deliver environmental benefits.

Even so, they have called for a moratorium on the release of so-called nanomaterials until new laws are in place to protect the public.

Groups like Friends of the Earth also have called for more public funds for testing, and rules that would make companies that market products using nanomaterials liable for any damage to health and the environment.

With so much at stake, regulators are proceeding cautiously.

In a report last week, the European Commission said that current legislation for regulating chemicals, known as Reach, and other laws were adequate for regulating nanotechnology -- for now.

But the commission also emphasized the need for more information on the possible toxic effects on humans and the environment and said new regulations could be needed, along with specific labeling for products containing nanomaterials.

Copyright 2008 The International Herald Tribune