Thursday, June 26, 2008

Full speed ahead for nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology might be very tiny but its implications can be quite large. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)
Nanotechnology might be very tiny but its implications can be quite large. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Nanotechnology holds vast potential for producing energy efficient products and processes — from purifying water to making better solar cells. In my Business of Green column this week, I write about how the market for such products could be worth trillions of dollars in coming years.

But the science of the small (as nanotechnology often is described) is throwing up vast, new challenges for regulators.

Nanotechology involves materials that are one billionth of a meter in size. Such particles may more readily penetrate biological membranes, cells, tissues and organs that larger particles cannot. The result is growing concern about the long-term effects on humans and other forms of life.

Everyone from health and environmental campaigners to business leaders agrees that reconciling the pros and cons of nanotechnology is going to be hard work, and that a full understanding of the properties of these materials could take years to establish.

Where they disagree is what to do now.

Groups like Friends of the Earth Europe have called for a moratorium on nanotechnology products until there are new laws that guarantee public safety. But governments and other authorities are taking a different course. The European Commission, which is the executive rule-making body for the European Union, says that current legislation, including its law on chemicals, is adequate for now.

In the case of biofuels, proponents say that the current generation of crop fuels may have contributed to the hike in food prices that is hurting many parts of the poor world. But they also say these fuels were a necessary step to the next generation of fuels that could come from sources like algae and switchgrass that do not compete with food.

Speeding ahead with the commercialization of nanotechnologies may also involve difficult tradeoffs. The question remains: Are they worth making?

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