Posts Tagged ‘nanotechnology’

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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Tiny particles pose threat: scientists

Friday, August 28th, 2009

– I’ve been beating this little drum for sometime now.   I think when we look back in the future on today’s science, this will be one of the big ‘gotchas’ we missed.

– I’ve written on this before here: , , , , and .

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Tiny particles in consumer products sold in New Zealand and around the world pose health and environmental risks and need to be tracked, scientists say.

Amid growing worldwide concern about the potential effects of nanoparticles, Kiwi scientists, academics and officials want the Government to introduce a labelling system identifying nanomaterials used in products on supermarket shelves and to maintain a public database of nanoproducts.

Nanoparticles are about 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair and are used in more than 800 consumer products, including cosmetics, sunblock, clothing, food, washing machines and refrigerators.

A report on the opportunities and drawbacks of nanotechnology has just been published by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. It lists more than 70 actions the Government should take.

Report editor and University of Canterbury physicist Simon Brown told The Press that apart from nanotechnology’s obvious advantages in the computer and electronics world, there were known and unknown hazards.

There was a strong sense the Government had yet to face up to nanotechnology.


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.