Archive for the ‘Nanotechnology’ Category

Planetary Boundaries 2.0 – new and improved

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

As Science publishes the updated research, four of nine planetary boundaries have been crossed

Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity, says an international team of 18 researchers in the journal Science (16 January 2015). The four are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).

Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are what the scientists call “core boundaries”. Significantly altering either of these “core boundaries” would “drive the Earth System into a new state”.

“Transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries,” says Lead author, Professor Will Steffen, researcher at the Centre and the Australian National University, Canberra. “In this new analysis we have improved our quantification of where these risks lie.”

Other co-authors from the Centre are Johan Rockström, Sarah Cornell, Ingo FetzerOonsie Biggs, Carl Folke and Belinda Reyers.

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What’s new?
The new paper is a development of the Planetary Boundaries concept, which was first published in 2009, identifying nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment. The science shows that these nine processes and systems regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System – the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that together provide conditions upon which our societies depend.

The research builds on a large number of scientific publications critically assessing and improving the planetary boundaries research since its original publication. It confirms the original set of boundaries and provides updated analysis and quantification for several of them, including phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, land-system change, freshwater use and biosphere integrity.

Though the framework keeps the same processes as in 2009, two of them have been given new names, to better reflect what they represent, and yet others have now also been assessed on a regional level.

“Loss of biodiversity” is now called “Change in biosphere integrity.” Biological diversity is vitally important, but the framework now emphasises the impact of humans on ecosystem functioning. Chemical pollution has been given the new name “Introduction of novel entities,” to reflect the fact that humans can influence the Earth system through new technologies in many ways.

“Pollution by toxic synthetic substances is an important component, but we also need to be aware of other potential systemic global risks, such as the release of radioactive materials or nanomaterials,” says Sarah Cornell, coordinator of the Planetary Boundaries research at the Centre. “We believe that these new names better represent the scale and scope of the boundaries,” she continues.

In addition to the globally aggregated Planetary Boundaries, regional-level boundaries have now been developed for biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, land-system change and freshwater use. At present only one regional boundary (South Asian Monsoon) can be established for atmospheric aerosol loading.

Nine planetary boundaries
1. Climate change
2. Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction)
3. Stratospheric ozone depletion
4. Ocean acidification
5. Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles)
6. Land-system change (for example deforestation)
7. Freshwater use
8. Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms)
9. Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).

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Study Looks at Particles Used in Food

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

– I’ve been wary for sometime about the spreading use of nano particles without the research to show that they are harmless.  If you’ve ever read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, you’ll remember his infamous “Ice-Nine“.

– dennis

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Nanomaterials, substances broken down by technology into molecule-size particles, are starting to enter the food chain through well-known food products and their packaging, but there is little acknowledgment by the companies using them, according to a new report from a nonprofit group that works to enhance corporate accountability.

Some companies may not even know whether nanomaterials are present in their products, the corporate accountability group As You Sow said.

Only 26 out of 2,500 companies, including PepsiCo, Whole Foods and the corporate parent of Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, responded to a survey from As You Sow about their use of nanomaterials.

“Only 14 said they don’t use nanomaterials, and of those only two had any policies on the use of nanomaterials,” said Andy Behar, chief executive of As You Sow. Various food companies have said they are interested in nanotechnology, which can help make products creamier without additional fat, intensify and improve flavors and brighten colors.

Their small size allows nanoparticles to go places in the body where larger particles cannot and enter cells. They have been found in the blood stream after ingestion and inhalation, and while research on their health effects is limited, studies have shown them to have deleterious effects on mice and cells.

“We’re not taking a no nano position,” Mr. Behar said. “We’re saying just show it’s safe before you put these things into food or food packaging.”

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Should we be taking a closer look at the potential dangers of nanotechnology?

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

Nanotechnology offers many benefits, but what about the possible downsides? When it comes to emerging technology, our ability to predict the outcomes of its application is often limited

It is impossible to deny the potential and excitement that nanoscale technology offers for the future. Whether it is in aerospace materials, medical treatments or improving computer devices, nanotechnology cannot be ignored.

But with any emerging technology comes potential risk. How much do we really know about the impacts on society and on health of the tiny nanoscale particles that are being churned for commercial and scientific purposes? Are nanoparticles released as we use those products causing harmful effects to the environment? The application of nanotechnology seems limitless, but where could these powerful ideas lead?

The classic worry about nanotechnology is the “grey goo” nightmare, a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology. Imagine, some time in the far future, that an oil tanker has run aground and is spilling its billions of gallons of cargo into a pristine natural habitat. A flotilla of tiny oil-munching nanorobots is deployed to break down hydrocarbons, rendering the spill harmless. In this science fiction scenario, the nanorobots have the capability of self-replicating, making hundreds of copies in minutes. And, instead of eating only hydrocarbons, the robots begin to eat everything around them. It doesn’t take long before everything on Earth is consumed by the proliferating mass of robots. Life, as we know it, would be gone.

The idea was first raised by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation. For those worried about nanotechnology, grey goo is a good reason to pause any progress until we can confirm we completely understand the process and its implications.

Fortunately, Drexler’s scenario is highly improbable – fast-replicating nanorobots would need so much energy and produce so much heat that they would become easily detectable to policing authorities who could stamp out the threat. In 2004, Drexler himself made public attempts to play down his more apocalyptic warnings.

But no technology is entirely safe, and the scientists working in any new field have a burden of responsibility as they step into the unknown.

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Suncreen nanoparticles ‘might be toxic’

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Nanoparticles used to make some sunscreens transparent, making them popular with consumers, might also be toxic according to Australian research which adds to uncertainty about the safety of some sunscreens.

A study by Amanda Barnard, from the CSIRO’s materials science and engineering division, found the nanoparticles that provided the best transparency and sun protection also represented the highest for production of free radicals.

Using computer modelling, Dr Barnard analysed the properties of the man-made titanium dioxide nanoparticles found in some sunscreens, testing them in three areas: sun protection, transparency and potential for free radical production.

Studying various sizes of particles, she found it was a case of the smaller the nanoparticle the better the sun protection and transparency.

“Unfortunately the small ones also have a high surface-to-volume ratio and the surfaces are where the free radicals are produced through a photochemical, or light induced reaction,” she said.

Dr Barnard won the 2009 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for physical scientist of the year for her work on nanoparticles — tiny particles used in many products including sunscreens, cosmetics and paints.

Her latest research, published next month in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, found only particles less than 13 nanometres in size minimised free radical production while retaining other desirable properties.

The titanium dioxide nanoparticles in sunscreens range in size from three to 200 nanometres.

The results add to questions about the safety of such sunscreens. The main concern is whether the nanoparticles interact with sunlight to produce free radicals that damage tissues or DNA. “There’s a trade-off to be made here,” she said. “Currently it’s a situation of ‘is it better to protect yourself from UV rays or hold off and see what happens’. But in the future it may be ‘is it better to protect yourself from UV rays or protect ourself from something else’,” she said.


Pentagon Looks to Breed Immortal ‘Synthetic Organisms,’ Molecular Kill-Switch Included

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

– Our hubris will be the ruin of us yet.   And we wonder why the SETI folks haven’t picked up any signals from other civilizations out among the stars.

– I think it is because in almost all cases, when animals evolve to the point where we are, with generalized intelligence, they  shoot themselves in the head by messing with stuff they shouldn’t have.  Stuff that then gets away from them and kills them.

– A year or two ago, I Blogged about Craig Venter’s attempts to create a bacteria from scratch.

– Then, more recently, I’ve posted several times about the risks of nanotechnology.  See these: and

– Now today, I see that the U.S.’s Pentagon is going to breed immortal lifeforms but that no one should worry – because they’re going to put a ‘kill switch’ in also.

– Has no one read Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and his prescient story about Ice-9?

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The Pentagon’s mad science arm may have come up with its most radical project yet. Darpa is looking to re-write the laws of evolution to the military’s advantage, creating “synthetic organisms” that can live forever — or can be killed with the flick of a molecular switch.

As part of its budget for the next year, Darpa is investing $6 million into a project called BioDesign, with the goal of eliminating “the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement.” The plan would assemble the latest bio-tech knowledge to come up with living, breathing creatures that are genetically engineered to “produce the intended biological effect.” Darpa wants the organisms to be fortified with molecules that bolster cell resistance to death, so that the lab-monsters can “ultimately be programmed to live indefinitely.”

Of course, Darpa’s got to prevent the super-species from being swayed to do enemy work — so they’ll encode loyalty right into DNA, by developing genetically programmed locks to create “tamper proof” cells. Plus, the synthetic organism will be traceable, using some kind of DNA manipulation, “similar to a serial number on a handgun.” And if that doesn’t work, don’t worry. In case Darpa’s plan somehow goes horribly awry, they’re also tossing in a last-resort, genetically-coded kill switch:

Develop strategies to create a synthetic organism “self-destruct” option to be implemented upon nefarious removal of organism.

– More…

– Hat tip to Cryptogon for this story.

Carbon Nanotubes: Innovative Technology Or Risk To Health Or Environment?

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

– I’ve written before about my concerns on the nanotechnology they are gleefully rolling out into our environment.   :arrow:, :arrow:, ➡

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Carbon nanotubes have made a meteoric career in the past 15 years, even if their applications are still limited. Recent research results show that – apart from their favorable mechanical and electrical properties – they also have disadvantageous characteristics.

One aspect which has rarely been considered so far is now addressed by researchers of the research center Forschungszentrum Dresden-Rossendorf. “If the application of products and commodities containing carbon nanotubes will increase in the future, then there will be a higher probability for the tubes to get into the environment during their production, usage or disposal, to be distributed there, and to bind pollutants such as heavy metals on their way trough the environment”, says Harald Zaenker, scientist at the FZD.

Via water into the environment

An important way for carbon nanotubes of getting into the environment is the way via the water. In their original state, the flimsy carbon fibers with a diameter of less than 50 nanometers (1 nanometer = 1 millionth of a millimeter) are hardly water-soluble. At first glance, they should therefore not be mobile in groundwater, lakes etc., i.e. they should rapidly settle or deposit. However, carbon nanotubes are able to form colloidal solutions if their surface structure is changed. Changes in the surface structure can be brought about deliberately during the production of the tubes or can be induced by natural processes if the tubes are released into the environment.

A colloidal solution, unlike a true solution of water-soluble substances, is a solution in which the apparently dissolved substance is finely dispersed in the solvent forming tiny particles. These particles are still much bigger than the molecules of a dissolved substance in a true solution. As colloids, carbon nanotubes might be transported anywhere in environmental waters. It is known meanwhile that the tubes can even penetrate cell walls and, thus, might theoretically be able to enter also animal or human cells. In addition, changes in the surface structure of carbon nanotubes cause another effect: their capability to bind heavy metals is increased.


Tiny Tech Can Leave a Big Mess

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

nanotechnology– I’ve been concerned about nanotechnology for sometime ( , , and ).   It’s not that I don’t like the idea and don’t think it has a lot of future.  I read The Engines of Creation way back in 1988 and was deeply impressed by the promise of it all.

– My concerns are, rather, the way we’re going about it.   As always, humanity, in its impatience for maximum profit in the minimum time, is developing and dispersing these agents into our environment with no real idea of the possible consequences.   Just like all the industrial chemicals we’ve developed and employed in the past, we’re assuming these materials will not cause any problems – a least until we find out otherwise.

– I also read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle many years ago and if you haven’t heard the story of ICE-9, you should.

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Scientists try to clean up nanotechnology before it becomes a big business–and a big problem

Nanotechnology‘s image is sleek, modern and clean. But that’s not its reality.

Turns out that designing and manufacturing materials so small that 100,000 of them can fit comfortably on the width of a hair strand absorbs tremendous amounts of energy and is anything but neat.

“You can make a very green product with a very messy process,” said Mark Greenwood, a Washington lawyer and former director of U.S. EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.

That “very messy process” is a problem for nanotech researchers trying, among other things, to design more efficient batteries, higher-performing solar cells, more effective water purifiers and more sensitive pollution detectors.

Consider what it takes to purify a nanomaterial of unwanted chemicals. Traditionally, that has required the repeated use of solvents – a lot of them, said James Hutchison, a professor at the University of Oregon.

“If you’re washing with a solvent, you’re wasting a lot of solvent,” Hutchison said. “This is the biggest contribution to waste we’ve been able to see. If you think about a lifecycle analysis on this, you see what’s the hot spot, and think about other ways to purify that don’t require solvent.”

Hutchison and others are trying to come at the nanotech problem with “green chemistry” techniques that emphasize materials, products and processes that reduce or eliminate hazardous substances and conserve energy and resources. His solution for the solvent waste: a nanofiltration membrane that separates nanomaterials from the rest.

Hutchison’s work is part of a larger University of Oregon effort that researchers call green nanoscience. In 2005, Hutchison launched the Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Initiative, which is funded by the Air Force and aims to develop nanotechnology to ensure high performance without threatening human health or the environment.

Because nanotechnology is still an emerging field, scientists believe there are opportunities to make it environmentally safe. “Now’s the time to think about how to make this stuff clean and green,” said David Rejeski, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

But the technology is steaming ahead, and the opportunity is unlikely to last long.


Government Fails to Assess Potential Dangers of Nanotechnology

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

– You’d think that we’d learn from past mistakes but we don’t seem to. We’ve put hundreds, even thousands, of novel chemicals never before seen by nature out into the environment – often with minimal or no testing. And the results have not been good. DDT and Thalidomide were two high profile examples but there are many others. it is easy for the urban dwellers among us to ignore what’s going on with the disappearing frogs and bees of the world – but it all means something and it doesn’t bode well.

– Now, we’ve created nanotechnology chemistry and we’re moving straight into using these new chemicals and freely distributing them into the environment – again with little or no testing.

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The little beast

Scientists charge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies are failing to assess the potential dangers of puny particles

Pesticide DDT, industrial lubricants PCBs and now plastic BPA (bisphenol A) are all widely used industrial chemical compounds that have been discovered to cause ills such as cancer and/or environmental damage. Worried that the latest chemical craze—nanoparticles (molecules and even atoms engineered at the scale of one billionth of a meter or smaller)—may follow suit, a panel of scientists is urging federal government agencies to assess the potential risks posed by such engineered chemicals and particles before they are used in any more substances.

The National Research Council, one of The National Academies in Washington, D.C., (scientific advisory bodies for the federal government) charges that the 18 government bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tasked with assessing chemical safety, have failed to prove that the diminutive particles are not dangerous. The group also charged in a new report that the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the government body created to oversee such efforts, lacks a coherent plan for ensuring that current and future uses of nanotechnology do not pose a risk to human health or the environment.

Nanotechnology risk research “needs to be proactive—identifying possible risks and ways to mitigate risks before the technology has a widespread commercial presence,” the report says. Instead the NNI “does not have the essential elements of a research strategy—it does not present a vision, contain a clear set of goals [or] have a plan of action.”

More than 800 widely available products, including cosmetics, sporting goods and video displays, contain some form of nanotechnology, whether engineered particles or compounds, according to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (a Washington, D.C. think tank created by Congress in 1968). That number is set to grow as nanotech comes to items such as food additives and medical treatments.


Nanotechnology Requires Immediate Changes In EPA, Experts Urge

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

– I’ve written about this problem before. Nanotechnology holds huge promise but, I believe, it also holds huge risks.

– Anyone who’s read Engines of Creation by Drexler understands how incredibly powerful these new compounds will become as we master their creation. But anyone who’s read Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and the story of Ice-9 will also realize how very badly things could go if we’re not careful.

– Scientists are and have been raising the alarm on this issue but thus far, not much has been done. In systems which are primarily profit driven, one can predict that not much will be done until a major problem manifests. Let’s hope it’s not a self-replicating, self-perpetuating something that we’ll be very unhappy we let out of the box.

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Science Daily As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently stated, nanotechnology has evolved from a futuristic idea to watch to a current issue to address. And for this new technology’s enormous potential to improve everyone’s life to be realized, nanotechnology must be subject to an adequate oversight system—a system designed to identify and minimize any adverse effects of nano materials and products on health or the environment.

Regulatory oversight of nanotechnology is urgently needed and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should act now, reports a new study released today. In EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century, former EPA assistant administrator for policy, planning and evaluation, J. Clarence (Terry) Davies, provides a roadmap for a new EPA to better handle the challenges of nanotechnology.

New nanomaterials and nanotechnology products are entering the market each week, and an adequate oversight system is necessary to identify and minimize any adverse effects of nano materials and products on health or the environment. Davies’ report sets out an agenda for creating an effective oversight system as nanotechnology advances–the technology that some have hailed as “the next industrial revolution.”


Books mentioned:


Thursday, November 30th, 2006

– It is one of the signature attributes of mankind that as we’ve used our intelligence to bull our way to dominance of the planet and the biosphere, that we’ve repeatedly underestimated the effects of our actions on the world around us.

– Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring was, perhaps, our first major wakeup call in this regard. Today, the world’s soil, streams and oceans swarm with chemicals of all sorts that have no analogues in the natural world and are, in many cases, having unexpected and damaging effects on the planet’s biological forms – including us.

– Reviewing Kurt Vonnecgut’s 1963 book Cat’s Cradle in which in introduced us to the hypothetical Ice-Nine is instructive at this point as we embark on releasing larger and larger numbers of nanotechnlogical materials into the natural environment and, once agin, assuming that all will be alright. An amazing assumption that we seem to make over and over again so that caution will not get in the way of profits.


WASHINGTON (AFP)—Nanotechnologies pose real threats to health and the environment and need prompt testing and oversight, but government and industry are moving slowly on the issue, scientists and environmentalists said.

Speaking after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took its first step to regulate a nanomaterial–near atomic-sized particles of silver being used as pesticide in products from shoes to a washing machine–experts told AFP that nanotechnology is already producing materials that can harm the environment and human health.

“There are some very serious concerns about potential health consequences,” said Patrice Simms of the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“We know next to nothing about their potential health effects,” said Simms.

Nanotechnology is the creation and use of materials barely larger than atomic in scale, measuring usually between one and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and a human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometers in width.

At that size–small enough to pass through cell membranes in the body–many materials can take on physical and chemical properties not seen in their larger forms, giving them uses never imagined before.

A Washington-based group, The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, has catalogued 356 products already using nanotechnology, including “breathable” bedsheets, lighter, stiffer golf clubs, skin care creams, computer chips and antibacterial socks.

The technology also promises more substantial “miracle” uses, from health applications like cancer treatments, to drinking water filtration systems for poor countries, to longer-life batteries.

But materials at that size may also pose dangers when they are inhaled, ingested, absorbed through the skin, or spread through nature by wind and water, scientists warn.

“Something different happens when you begin to work at a very small scale,” said Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor at the Project on Emerging Technologies.

“We know that a lot of materials like asbestos and particles affect the health because of their shapes and sizes as well as their chemistry.

“It’s reasonable to assume that some of these new materials are going to do the same thing,” noting that there are a number of new nanomaterials in filament form, like asbestos which causes lung disease.

The problem is that both industry and the government have assumed the existing regulatory framework for chemicals and other materials is adequate, Simms pointed out.