Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Smalley's smart eye for a dumb supply

If you don't believe me, listen to Richard Smalley, himself. The buckyball baron co-wrote a Houston Chronicle op-ed yesterday about nanotech and energy. The piece is tight combination of Texas flag-waving, nanotech boosterism and a dash of homeland security:

Seeing the nano-light: "Nanotechnologies also offer the possibility for vast new electrical energy storage capacity that must be tested and connected into the smart grid."

Fear Factor: "But as we saw from the Great Blackout of the Northeast, those inside an island under attack, including all city and state agencies and utilities, are currently on their own for early response."

Remembering the Alamo: "Texas then becomes the first to test nano and other advanced technologies related to transmission wires, environmental remediation, new generation technologies and other developments we can't even imagine now related to the smart grid of the future."

In today's Small Times, Smalley elaborates on how he'd use quantum wires to make the dumb grid a bit smarter and better able to harvest solar energy.

If the troubled summer at Ohio's FirstEnergy is any gauge of the power industry as a whole, it sounds like a smarter automated system might have made up for some pretty dumb human errors.


Monday, August 18, 2003

Nano knowledge is power

"I will get right to the point. Energy is the single most important problem facing humanity today." - Nanotechnology pioneer Rick Smalley, speaking to the U.S. Congress on July 25, 2002

The day the lights went out in Ann Arbor, I grabbed my laptop, thanked fate that I had recently filled my tank, fought horrible traffic home (one 'burb outside Detroit), got to know my neighbors a little better and played Scrabble by candlelight with my wife. On Friday, still no power and water, so we stuffed the dog and our belongings into the car, and headed north to my inlaws' home off the northern shores of Lake Michigan, a rustic area that was, ironically enough, completely unaffected by the sudden loss of power. While enjoying the three-day weekend on the beach, I cursed myself for not running a Small Times correspondent's report, filed last week, on nanotech and electricity.

Well, we can't all be visionaries like Rick Smalley, as you can see from the quotation that began this entry. Smalley has been reciting the energy mantra for more than a year now, and solving power problems is at the core of his call for an Apollo Program for nanotech. He and others are pushing for a federal commitment of billions of dollars to develop nanotech energy applications. When Smalley speaks, people generally listen, but now Smalley's visions seem nothing less than prophetic. Legislators will want to review what he and others have proposed, including harnessing energy from the sun and the Earth's core and developing smart distributed energy networks.

Lux Capital co-founder and fellow nanotech blogger Josh Wolfe has also given Smalley his props for his solution to energy distribution problems: Superconductive "quantum wire" spun from a carbon nanotube "could quickly move extra power from places that have it to those who need it."

Another source that should be consulted is Robert L. Olson, research director of the Institute for Alternative Futures, a nonprofit research group. In a recently published article in The Futurist, Olsen writes: "Fuel cells and other micro-power sources, collectively called distributed generation, will likely emerge as the most economical approach to providing new electrical generating capacity. Micropower on site or feeding a local grid eliminates the cost of distributing power, and in large utility grids most of the cost is actually in transmitting the power rather than in generating it. On-site and local-scale power eliminates grid losses and makes it possible to harness waste heat for heating and cooling."

One reason Olsen is a big believer in hydrogen: It's clean. "The only emission from fuel cells running on hydrogen is pure water." Acknowledging concerns over just how clean hydrogen really is, Olsen writes that it all depends on how it's produced. If you produce hydrogen using fossil fuel energy, then you're still producing greenhouse gases. "The priority our society gives to minimizing climate change will be a major factor determining what kind of hydrogen economy we create," Olsen writes.

I've made a similar argument for nanotech. The technology, itself, is morally and ethically neutral. It's up to an informed, voting public to decide whether to delve into the dark side.

If you're hungry for even more nanoenergy knowledge, look at Small Times' previous coverage of the California crisis, and an excellent overview in a Small Times cover story written by David Pescovitz.

Too bad that it takes a crisis like this to get legislators and citizens to pay attention to the fragility of our power grid, but maybe now they'll see what the nanotech visionaries have seen for years and finally take action.


Thursday, August 14, 2003

Engines of Obfuscation

Meanwhile, in Old/New Europe, the spotlight seekers are stuck in green goo as the real scientists move forward on molecular motors.


Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Playing God with Monsters

Horrified by "There Be Monsters Here" tales, some members of Congress called for a ban on DNA research in the mid '70s. Because those calls were rejected, millions of people around the world can now hope for DNA-based vaccines against AIDS, malaria and other deadly diseases that have destroyed lives, communities and nations.

Here's an illustration: The name of Joseph DeRisi keeps coming up in connection with global epidemics. No, he's not a modern-day Typhoid Mary. Just the opposite. The University of California, San Francisco researcher is using his own custom-built DNA microarrays to look inside the "minds" of some serious serial killers. The "minds" are genes, and his home-brewed gene chips helped solve the SARS mystery earlier this year. Now, DeRisi has chosen malaria as his next victim.

His chips have a way of sweet-talking the nasty parasite's genes into expressing themselves, showing which ones are active when it's brunching on its victim's blood or spreading to other cells. DeRisi found that the secret to malaria's success is its simplicity – regulated by only 10 genes compared with, say, 141 in yeast and more than a thousand in human cells. So, malaria is not the brightest bug in the biosphere, but it does its job with a single-mindedness, turning on each gene just before it's needed – like an assassin pumping his rifle.

As is usually the case with serial killers, malaria's strength is also its weakness. DeRisi tells The New York Times that all you need to do is take out one of the slimy simpleton's regulatory genes, and you'll send it babbling backward toward the evolutionary basement.

The technological breakthrough comes too late for some regions of Africa that are suffering a resurgence of malaria. But reading news of both the breakthrough and the outbreak clarifies for me what could be sacrificed on the altar of precaution if it's not tempered with knowledge that risk can also bring reward.


P.S.: This post has just been Slashdotted, so there is sure to be some lively debate on this subject over there, too. Welcome, Slashdot readers. Come back often!

Making an assay out of ourselves

Great to see a micro/nano company that doesn't take itself so seriously that it's above using a pun (the lowest form of humor, seen often on this Weblog) in its slogan.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Movin' Through Casimir

Nano isn't my only obsession. The other is the ultimate fate of the universe. Really. Just ask my wife. ("Why bother scooping the dog poop in the backyard if there isn't enough mass in the universe to guarantee its continued existence?")

Last I heard, the universe doesn't contain enough stuff to reverse the Big Bang and create nature's ultimate recycling machine: The Big Crunch. Before this disheartening news hit a year or so ago, it was comforting to think that my atoms would be re-used in the next spin cycle. But, no, instead the universe will coast, dim and fizzle.

The only hope? An escape hatch. And nanotech, of course, is coming to the rescue. Purdue physicist Ephraim Fischbach – oh, you beautiful, bald man – spends his time like a mime pretending he's encased in glass, feeling the space around him, hoping his hand slips into another dimension. The goal might be generations away, but – like Tang and joysticks to the Apollo program – the search can lead to some wonderful discoveries along the way.

One of them is a new way of measuring Casimir force on the nanoscale. You can read the details here. Simply put, Casimir force is the result of our constant bombardment by the photons of light that surround us. We big people don't feel it, but when scientists try to make things happen on the nanoscale, these photons can literally clog up the gears and get them to behave unpredictably. Scientists, and those who want to exploit their discoveries, hate unpredictability.

So, Fischbach and friends may not have opened the door to another dimension, but they have helped place nanoscientists into a zone where they can learn how to crack the whip and make molecules behave. The result might be computers or fiber optics that use photons as workhorses.

Regarding the fate of the universe, I guess I shouldn't be getting my superstrings all tied in a knot. There's time.


The Electric Kool-Aid Nano Test

A great deal has been written in the popular press recently about the slippery definition of "nanotechnology." At Small Times, we often subject the word to unspeakable torture in our attempts to extract information on whether a company conforms. Here's a little peak behind the scenes in an e-mail exchange between correspondent Jack Mason, staff writer David Forman and me.

From: Jack Mason
Sent: Wednesday, August 06, 2003 12:07 PM
To: Howard Lovy
Subject: Chlorogen: Plant-Made Drugs

Harris & Harris just invested ... I think this kind of "wet" bionanotech is fascinating.

Chlorogen Inc. is focused on developing plant-made drugs and vaccines for the treatment and prevention of human diseases. Its patented chloroplast technology permits the expression of foreign proteins only within plant chloroplasts. According to Chlorogen, this provides two significant benefits. First, the chloroplast technology dramatically enhances the protein production of a cell. Second, because chloroplast DNA is not inherited through pollen, Chlorogen's technology can prevent foreign genes from being transferred to other crops through pollen. Chlorogen's initial focus will be on developing pharmaceutical proteins in tobacco.

From: Howard Lovy
To: Jack Mason; David Forman

Thanks, Jack! I'm forwarding this to David, who will determine whether this is nanotech and write a brief if it is.

Howard Lovy
News Editor
Small Times Media

From: David Forman
To: Howard Lovy; Jack Mason;

The big question (and I certainly don't have the answer) is whether 'wet' bionanotech is just biotech. Any takers?

From: Howard Lovy
To: David Forman; Jack Mason;

No. THIS is an example of wet nanotech.


From: Jack Mason
To: David Forman; Howard Lovy

I think it can be argued both ways:

On the one hand, biotech has been using genetic engineering to do similar things, like produce human insulin with bacteria, for a long time.

On the other, the degree of control and complexity of what might be produced by such modified biofactories seems to be a level of growing sophistication that at least borders on a new category one might call bionanotech.

I've been rereading Drexler's Engines of Creation, and am reminded that he talked about protein engineering and DNA synthesis as being both models for and precursors to his idea of molecular manufacturing.

One other thought ... I just finished James Watson's excellent book DNA: The Secret Life. The complexity of the DNA molecule, and the tremendous abilities science has developed to manipulate such infinitesimal stuff, makes me wonder if biotech really is an advanced nanotechnology, but one that merely developed without benefit of the 'nano' prefix.

From: Howard Lovy
To: David Forman; Jack Mason;

Well, here's the official Small Times definition of nanotechnology: "The creation, use or manipulation of matter on the nanoscale to take advantage of properties that reign at that scale. Typically, this is defined as 100 nanometers or below."

The judgment call we make every day is that "take advantage of properties" part of it, and you can argue that we've been pretty loose on that with other applications (nanocoatings, textiles, etc.)

Here's the company's description of the technology. The key phrase there is: "Chlorogen has invented and patented genetic sequences or regulatory signals, which tell foreign genes to function within the chloroplasts and only the chloroplasts."

You could argue that if it wasn't nanoscale, it wouldn't work – but does it take advantage of any "special properties?" Not sure. We'd need help from somebody with some initials after his name.

From a news standpoint, though, Harris & Harris – a company that specializes in nanotech investments, therefore is always on our radar – decided to invest in this company. Let's find out why, and let them tell us whether they see it as nano, bio, potato or potawto. Either way, let's not call the whole thing off. It's probably a brief.

P.S.: Harris & Harris' investment in Chlorogen has generated some "Nanalyses" over at Nanalyze.


Monday, August 11, 2003

Are you trying to seduce us, Sen. Lieberman?

Sen. Joe Lieberman, writing in his online diary after his July visit to Nanosys Inc. in Palo Alto: "In a line that reminded me of 'The Graduate,' one of my tour guides called nanotechnology 'the next plastic.' " Discuss

NanoBot Reprise

Nice to see some of my previous rantings on this page echoed to a larger readership by political reporter, analyst and fellow blogger Declan McCullagh.

Take a look at Return of the Green Luddites on CNET.


Sunday, August 10, 2003

Backlash: The Prequel

"It's been observed that nanotechnology is the first technology to spawn a backlash before it has even been developed." James, my brother, that about says it all.


Friday, August 08, 2003

Do they know it's nanotime at all?

Jet-setting nanopersonality Tim Harper writes an intriguing column that briefly addresses an issue that will make its way onto the global agenda: Nano-Haves and Nano-Have-Nots. It's really a stepchild of the broader issue over access to technology and its benefits that some file under the general class-warfare category pitting the developing world against the developed. As I've said before, nanotechnology is in danger of not only being classified as a form of pollution, but also as another form of oppression by industrialized nations and is sure to find its way onto the anti-globalization movement's agenda. The industrialized and developing worlds, as Tim says, should talk to one another about an exchange of technological and monetary resources for skilled and educated workers, then we can all join hands in a "We Are the World" sing-along while enjoying the benefits of a nanotech-enabled, healthy, poverty-free world. We just need to get the word out about the various ways nanotechnology can help the world's impoverished regions. The solution, Harper points out, is "communication." But while conference calls to Kabul are all well and good, nanotech rock stars like Harper need to think on a grander scale if they're going to drown out the voices of the closed-minded. How about NanoAid? I wonder what Bob Geldof is doing these days. Discuss

Giving business the nano

Even if Motorola memory pioneer Herb Goronkin's appointment as NanoBusiness Alliance co-chairman is only an honorary title, it's still a thrill to see the group attach to its leadership list a representative from the third level of the nanotech triumvirate: science. With fellow co-chairmen Newt Gingrich and Steve Jurvetson representing the political and financial, a layer of technical know-how needed to be spread among the bread and bluster. The name of Goronkin may not appear with all the neon flash of the other two, but Goronkin brings the NanoBusiness Alliance something more valuable than star power: the ability to form, well, business alliances. As Candace Stuart reported in an in-depth Small Times profile earlier this year: "He's crafted partnerships with groups as varied as the industry and trade office of Japan and the research branch of the U.S. Department of Defense to keep his programs moving forward." Goronkin's latest program before retirement was MRAM, which uses the spin properties of electrons to create memory chips that don't go senile when they're turned off. His appointment sounds like a great way to put more "nano" into NanoBusiness. Discuss

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Exit 'The Matrix,' please

This news story, Power from blood could lead to 'human batteries', has been cycled, recycled, spun and dried on news sites and blogs for the past couple of days, partly because the writer was smart: He inserted a "Matrix" reference.

Between the overused "Fantastic Voyage" references and the cottage industry that revolves around making "Star Trek" technology a reality, it appears that many writers are convinced that the only way to make science breakthroughs understandable to average readers is to compare the resulting technologies to their counterparts in popular mythology. The movies, of course, are among our few common, worldwide reference points, so conjuring up "Matrix" images makes the story more likely to be picked up by news outlets around the world.

The problem is that potentially life-saving technology is being presented, again, as potentially sinister. There is, of course, a dark side to any technology, so why not do a little extra reporting to flag the potential misuses? That would take a little more work, though.

I'm admittedly geekier than the average bear, but the thought of nanobio generators being used to power implanted devices like pacemakers is cool enough to hold my interest – without the writer prodding me with the image of Keanu Reeves as a AAA battery attached to a worldwide screen saver encrypted to enslave humanity.


Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Sent to the Precautionary Principle's Office

Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, gives an effective defense of the Precautionary Principle in Monday's San Francisco Chronicle. The city just enacted a law that requires the "do-no-harm" precept to be taken into consideration when it makes decisions on the environment.

In a previous post on Greenpeace's nanotech study, I talked about my general agreement with the Precautionary Principle, but I also argued that it's too early to apply it to nanotechnology, since not enough is known about nanoparticles to even have a doubt.

Blumenfeld makes an effective case for the principle when he looks back at how failure to follow it created problems with lead and asbestos. He urges that "environmental decision-making be based on rigorous science – science that is explicit about what is known, what is not known and what may never be known about potential hazards. "

Sounds great so far, but the alarm bells go off for nanotech advocates when he writes: "Unfortunately, in today's regulatory system, lack of proof of harm is usually misinterpreted as proof of safety."

I'm not sure if that's a misinterpretation, or simply the human urge to progress despite an element of risk. If we didn't have the instinct for taking risks, I'd be chiseling this message on a cave wall.

When Blumenfeld correctly acknowledges that "a risk that is unnecessary, and not freely chosen, is never acceptable," he encapsulates perfectly the nature of the current nanotech/environment debate. When you read on this Weblog, in Small Times and in increasingly frequent reports in the mainstream media about the need for a worldwide conversation about the "societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology," it's precisely these questions that society needs to answer: "Which risks are necessary? If we choose to take a risk, was the choice made freely?"

As nanotech comes of age, variations of these questions are going to be heard for decades and centuries to come.

But, we're only talking about San Francisco. What do they have to do with the rest of the world? For one thing, the city is usually galaxies ahead in its approach to social, political and technological issues. The rest of the country will eventually catch up, and look to San Francisco for precedent. We need to pay close attention as a nebulous concept like the Precautionary Principle – complete with subjective definitions of "acceptable risk" – becomes codified into law.


Gender splendor

The two or three people who read my rant on gender selection technology should take a look at author and journalist Jenn Shreve's well-written guest blog on BoingBoing – a site co-edited by Small Times correspondents David Pescovitz and Mark Frauenfelder. (Yes, I did give Mark an assignment in the South Pacific and I'm hopeful for Small Times' first Rarotonga dateline.)

Shreve found an advertisement for gender-selection firm MicroSort, whose technology was featured in this Small Times article a couple of years ago, and communicates a similar point with much more eloquence than I was able to achieve. Plus, she spurred some interesting discussion from readers. Very nice work.


The Shift of Foresight: Going Mainstream

It's nice to see that the nano-seers at the Foresight Institute, a group of nanotech enthusiasts whose ruminations were once considered a bit too esoteric for general consumption, are finally getting some respect from mainstream business publications.

Silicon Valley Biz Ink's recent interview with Foresight President Christine Peterson helps send a message to the general business community that it needs to wake up and catch up on what all these messy-haired, rumpled eggheads have pondering in obscurity for years.

In the interview, Peterson gives some advice for the summer, warning that the zinc oxide nanoparticles in some brands of sunscreen "may have health issues." (For more on this, see: Survey finds the smaller the size, the bigger the possible risks.) "So I wouldn't necessarily advise you run out and buy the sunscreen right now, certainly not for your children," she told Biz Ink. "But I think studies will be done and we'll have an answer pretty soon about whether this is a good idea."

At the same time, though, she expects that the first benefits from nanotechnology, in the next two or three decades, will come from "clean manufacturing," replacing the old techniques of leaving behind "leftover atoms and molecules that end up often in the water and in the air. There's no excuse for this; nature doesn't do it that dirtily."

Peterson said that while it's "unusual for a new technology, with applications so far off, to have so much being spent on ethical issues," she remains true to the name and spirit of her institute. Like a good nano-scout, she emphasized the need to be prepared: "Fortunately, we have quite a bit of time here – perhaps a couple of decades or more to look at this issue and figure it out in advance."


Monday, August 04, 2003

'Green chemists' are not a bunch of oxymorons

The Register-Guard of Eugene, Ore., ran an informative guest column from James Hutchison, an associate professor of chemistry and director of the Materials Science Institute at the University of Oregon. "Political activists fail to recognize that nanoscale materials are nothing new. They exist naturally in the environment ..." Hutchison writes. His lab is heavily involved in "Green Chemistry," and if you think that's an inherent contradiction, take a look at some of his fascinating research and his 2001 article in Chemical & Engineering News, Nanoscience Turns Green (PDF). Discuss

'Grey goo will bury you'

Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your pants stains.


Caveat Emptor Nano

Today's Reuters story, Overused, Misused Nano Becoming Pervasive Prefix, reminds me again of what NanoBusiness Alliance Executive Director Mark Modzelewski wisely told Small Times reporter David Forman a few months back following an apparent nanoscam that hit the industry: "The nanotech community might be a particularly attractive target to these 'bad people' because it has been so effective at generating buzz and attracting cash. 'With those dynamics they need to be more careful and frankly more cynical,' Modzelewski said." The same advice, of course, should be given to consumers, in general. But most American consumers intuitively know that products do not necessarily match their labels, and it's another sign that nanotech has arrived that the Mr. Haneys of the world will try to resell their snake oil with "nano" packaging. Anyway, it's nothing new. The magic "nano" prefix has been the marketing term of choice from the U.S. to China for a few years now. How to tell nano from no-no? Well, read Small Times and the NanoBot, of course, and we'll help you sort it out. Discuss

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Don't hate me because I'm nano-beautiful

This recent New York Post story had me thinking about beauty.

Small Times reported last year that nanomaterials had been used in cosmetics for years (L'Oreal has had them in products since 1995, despite the Post's assertion that, "Even big names like L'Oreal are getting into the act."). So now, with renewed debate surrounding what is not known about nanoparticles, the fact that nanoscale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are used in some brands of cosmetics and sunscreen is continuously juxtaposed with news reports about the controversy.

In this cursed and wonderful age of Google, whose spawn is quick access to information but ad nauseaum repetition of often questionable factoids, the L'Oreal lore has circled the globe more than a few times, ripped from its original context. It's the most-easily-available piece of information about how consumers connect to nanotech today and a reporter doesn't need to expend very much energy to find it, so it gets plopped into a news story about potentially dangerous nanoparticles. Is there any evidence, or even suspicion, that consumers who have used L'Oreal's chock-full-o-nanocapsules line of cosmetics for the past eight years have been harmed in any way? Uh … no … But, you know, they have "nanostuff" in them. Isn't that creepy?

Meanwhile, in the world of real nanoscience, Great Britain just named a panel of advisers to look into potential benefits and problems associated with nanotech. The list of names can be found here.

U.S. News and World Report's James M. Pethokoukis continues his analysis of the Greenpeace nanotech report with another column today, Turning green over nanotech. The controversy is still on the European Union's radar, as you can see in this report, Nanotechnology: Public debate takes off and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology offered what it called a "qualified endorsement" of Greenpeace's report.

Oh, and to those who paid attention to my previous rantings on Shimon Peres and nanotech, CNet ran an interview with the former Israeli leader. He doesn't mention nanotech, but it is a window into how he thinks about technology and its role in national economic health and regional stability: A high-tech bridge to Middle East peace?


Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Domi-Nano Theory

A puzzled reporter called me late last week. Like many nanotech-industry watchers, he was scratching his head over the recent announcement that former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres was the scheduled keynote speaker at this September's World Nano-Economic Congress in Washington, D.C. He had read my blog entry from last week on this subject, but still wanted to know more. Aside from the cynical view taken by a reader on my message board that Peres was simply available through the Washington Speakers Bureau and that he really knows nothing about the subject (although a quick speaker's search in the bureau's Web site turns up nobody named Shimon Peres), what does the former Israeli leader and Nobel laureate know about nanotech, and why is Israel pushing it?

The reporter wondered aloud whether it had anything to do with what he heard was a kind of nanotech "arms race" going on internationally.

I told him that while the arms race metaphor is being used by nanotech's detractors, he's basically correct: Former President Clinton's creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative was indeed the shot heard 'round the nano world, spurring other nations, large and small, to commit significant amounts of money to nanotechnology research and development. To use another ancient metaphor, the United States knocked over the first domino, setting in motion similar efforts from its international competitors. Government watchdogs, of course, cannot help but hear the clatter, and that's where we are today (see my previous three rantings on Greenpeace).

Nations around the world talk now of the need to "play catch-up" with the United States in nanotech commercialization, turning the issue, inevitably, into one that involves national pride, as Shimon Peres (or his ghost writer) has written previously. In the United States, too, this international competition, or arms race, if you will, is seen as a way to stir an American public that has not been excited about science since the space race. U.S. officials want to use the debate over nanotech at the government level as a bully pulpit to spread the nano word. Some are even suggesting a space-race-style nano challenge to inspire American taxpayers. I'm a bit skeptical that the American people – much more cynical about government and science since the '60s (space shuttle disasters, Three Mile Island, etc.) – can ever again feel that sense of innocent wonder. At best, nanotech breakthroughs will be "one small step" at a time, with very few noticeable "giant leaps" to glue Americans to their TV sets as they did in 1969.

But I also told the reporter that this sense of international competition is something that's meant for internal consumption, to get the voting public to wake up and take notice. In reality, there is a great deal of international cooperation in nanotech research and development – including (shhh, don't tell anybody), between the United States and France!

So, back to Israel and Peres. I really don't know how much Peres knows about nanotechnology. But I do assume that he's aware of the research going on in his country's universities, and the money being invested by the venture capital community. Peres has also used his bully pulpit for a $500 million-$600 million nanotech initiative of his own. Recently, former AOL-Time Warner Chairman Steve Case met with Peres to talk about Israel's nanotech fund. You'd have to assume that Case wasn't just humoring an old man who knows nothing about nanotech.

The Israel angle may interest the press because nobody wants to read another story about how the United States is competing in nanotech with its traditional rivals like Japan. But Israel, usually in the news for far different reasons, devoting its scarce resources to nanotech in order to compete globally? Now, that's more of an interesting story. To me, it shows how nanotech is transforming from a niche, special-interest subject for geeks into a global economic development story.

It's a story that will contain all the color and controversy of the environmental issue, so watch for the clatter of dominoes to soon catch the attention of the anti-globalization movement. It's an interesting time to be covering nanotech.


Monday, July 28, 2003

Subterranean Nano Blues

"Hey, lay off Greenpeace," my wife told me over the weekend. "They're not PETA, and they do a lot of good – more good than you do, just sitting behind your computer and writing."

My wife, of course, is both my biggest fan and my biggest critic and rarely pulls punches.

Aside from the fact that she's my wife (and thus, always right), she does have a very good point. Greenpeace does do a great deal of good in the world, and of course it does not just sit in an office and pontificate. Its members physically place themselves in harm's way to draw attention to important environmental issues. That's the activism my wife grew up with. She was raised by '60s radicals who today have lost none of their youthful idealism (displayed in their home is a great picture of my in-laws, circa '70s, in full hippie regalia, at a no-nukes march in Washington with my future wife by their side).

So, yeah, my in-laws must think their daughter married a total sellout. (To add insult to injury, I was also one of those liberals who was in favor of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but of course that subject goes beyond the mission of this blog).

Like I told my friend and faithful Small Times correspondent Jack Mason, in an interview he conducted with me for an article he's writing for Salon (I'll let you know when it runs. We all need to help that excellent online magazine survive), I feel horrible over the possibility that the industry I'm covering is about to be painted with a broad "polluter" brush – especially when what is known about nanotech's potential benefits to the environment outweigh what is not known.

I have covered local environmental issues during my reporting career, and one thing that I've remained curious about is the idea of risk – the "acceptable" risks we take just commuting to work, vs. the risks associated with, for example, living near a trash incinerator or close to power lines. We make decisions every day about which risks we deem acceptable (or choose to ignore), and which ones we worry about. I've read reports from environmental watchdogs on the local and national levels that assessed various health risks associated with a NIMBY issue, and I've read some ridiculous counterarguments from the "pro-industry side" that compare these risks to the chances of exposure to random horrors by just leaving our house. Usually, both these arguments lack common sense.

What Greenpeace is invoking for nanotech is what they used in previous battles, the Precautionary Principle, which essentially says that we're better safe than sorry. It reduces the possibility of horrible mishaps by limiting scientific exploration when safety is in doubt. In general, I'm in agreement with the principle. It makes perfect sense – if the safety of a technology is in doubt.

The trouble is that Greenpeace is too early on this. Nanotech's safety isn't "in doubt." We don't know enough about the behavior of nanoparticles in our bodies and in the environment to even have a doubt. The Precautionary Principle could reasonably be invoked after we know more about specific nanomaterials under specific conditions. Then, the alarm bells can go off, and Greenpeace can do what they do best: Call attention to the potential problem and demand action.

To Greenepeace's credit, the group did conclude its report with a brief nod to the "number of environmental goods that may arise" from nanotechnology and a call for "a more in-depth analysis of environmental concerns."

A couple of excellent articles on this general topic moved in today's news cycle. Take a look at Fear of the science of the small 'is focused on the wrong things', from the Guardian, and this one from EurekAlert, Nanotechnology: sink or swim?

Now, I hope when we visit this weekend, my in-laws will let me out of the chicken coop and allow me to sleep in the house.


Friday, July 25, 2003

The Greenpeace Report, Part II: NanoWars

It is said that military leaders are perpetually fighting the previous war. The same can be said of the rainbow warriors, Greenpeace, whose recently released opening shot at nanotechnology is really a battle plan for the environmental activist group's previous conflict against genetically modified foods.

It's clear that Greenpeace is choosing to ignore some important landscape differences between the old GM foods battlefield and the theater of operations in the coming war over nanotechnology. In its report, Future Technologies, Today's Choices, Greenpeace misidentifies the conditions under which the science of nanotechnology is now growing.

Greenpeace has decided that the label "nanotechnology" is merely the latest incarnation of an industrial system that allows the very few and very mighty to hand down decisions from on high for the sole purpose of enriching themselves at the expense of the masses. Greenpeace does not see nanotechnology for what it is: a broad label for a very sophisticated kind of science or process that can help accomplish any number of technological goals. Whether those goals include environmental cleanup or more-efficient killing machines is the choice of the broader society.

Doug Parr, Greenpeace's chief scientist, writes in the report that if there are unintended consequences of a new technology, "it is unreasonable to expect collective responsibility if the decision to proceed with the technology was made by an elite few." He goes on to write, "… the interests of those who own and control the new technologies largely determine how a new technology is used."

Who are the "elite few"? He really doesn't say. I suppose that's a wink and nod to his intended audience, which I assume already knows who these elite people are. Later, the report states that nanotech "materials and processes being developed are technology-pushed rather than market-led."

Well, meanwhile, in the world of real nanotechnology, the few products that have been successful in the marketplace (take a look at my previous post) are those that fill a consumer or market need. The oft-repeated examples of stain-free pants and sunscreen are successful not because they are products dictated from on high, but rather are driven by consumer demand.

That's not to say that the "elite few," if given the chance, wouldn't love to tell consumers what's good for them. If by "elite," Greenpeace means the nanotech scientists hatching their evil plans at university and government labs, the group could take comfort in knowing that many of these scientists remain frustrated that investors and consumers are not immediately opening up their wallets to any contraption that emerges from their head and into a prototype.

Greenpeace's report is correct when it asserts that "some new materials may constitute new classes of non-biodegradable pollutant about which we have little understanding," and that "little work has been done to ascertain the possible effects of nanomaterials on the living systems, or the possibility that nanoparticles could slip past the human immune system."

Nanotech researchers will be the first people to admit this, and at institutes like the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, they're eagerly learning the answers to these important questions. If they discover that horrible things happen to the body when nanomaterials are introduced, yet these materials are still placed on the market without consumers' informed consent, then I'll be right there alongside Greenpeace in demanding their removal. In the meantime, let the discovery process continue.

The Greenpeace report does establish a good framework for the debate over societal implications to nanotechnology, especially when it poses important questions that we all should be asking. Among them: "Who is in control? Where do the benefits fall? Who takes responsibility for resulting problems?"

But Greenpeace's implied answers to these questions again can be applied to the old GM foods battlefield, but not universally to nanotechnology.

"Who is in control?" Well, right now, consumers are. They decide what they'll buy, thus influencing what investors will pay to develop. Genetically modified foods, in contrast, were in many cases thrust on consumers without their informed consent. The report contrasts this with the mobile phone industry, where consumers gladly ignored the unknown risks associated with them in favor of the convenience they provided. Mobile phone buyers know what they're doing, know that there is a shortage of research on their long-term health effects, and went ahead and supported the industry, anyway. A cabal of elite companies did not force feed it on anybody.

Where do the benefits fall? That's a political question that has no correct answer. If you believe that it's a bad thing for small companies to become so successful at selling to consumers that they turn into big companies, then you've already answered the question before it's even asked.

Who takes responsibility for resulting problems? I'll translate this question for you: "Who should the angry mob blame when the technology is perceived to have gone awry?"

Throughout the report, a distinction is drawn between "science" and "society," without any definition of who or what those entities are, leaving us with the assumption that they are inherently at odds, rather than enjoy a symbiotic relationship – one influencing the other through changing consumer habits, varying states of war and peace and the pace of scientific discovery. When Greenpeace talks of a possible "dystopian future" where "the shift of the control of nanotechnology" turns toward "military needs," it dismisses the well-established give-and-take relationship between military and consumer technology.

Of course, the message here – with wording tailored to the audience – is that "war is bad." Yes, of course. War is bad. Our military and political leaders should really get together and try to stop all wars. Now, what does that have to do with nanotechnology?

Nanotech is a process, a tool, a way of building and improving practically anything we want. The focus of our worldwide discussion of "societal implications" should be about the way we want to build our society, and not about the inherent evil or goodness of the hammers and nails we're going to use to build it.

Greenpeace asks, rhetorically for internal consumption: "Is the future of nanotechnology then a plaything of the already-rich?" Well, not if the ultimate goals involve better, cheaper, nonpolluting products and energy available to everybody. If that is what consumers, leaders and scientists decide, then nanotech is there to help. The nanotech battle should really be fought for the hearts and minds of consumers and voters, and not against the technology itself.

Greenpeace begins with the assumption that average people are powerless against invisible forces that secretly control society's agenda (it's where the political left always meets the right), without acknowledging that these "forces" cannot remain entrenched in the face of a society that rejects them. America is obese? Don't blame McDonald's. The Golden Arches can't survive without a public willing to march into their death chambers.

You want nanotechnology that doesn't make a mess of what's left of our planet? I think that's a great idea. Let's bring on the global discussions over how we're going to get there. But it's not a question of "good nano" or "bad nano." It's a question of how we're going to use nano.


Thursday, July 24, 2003

Nanotechnology industry takes Greenpeace's bait

Greenpeace's just-released report on nanotechnology is vintage advocacy-group treatment of scientific research: Grab the available facts, then make them conform to your predetermined conclusion. That, after all, is what advocacy groups do. And most intelligent readers are able to keep that in mind when they come across any "study" that comes out of an organization that filters information through its preset worldview.

It's true for Greenpeace, the National Rifle Association or the Save the Bog Turtle Foundation.

Having worked in the news business most of my life, I've read through countless advocacy-group studies and have become fairly adept at separating the slogans and code phrases from the legitimate conclusions. Read enough of these research reports from groups with competing agendas, and a complete picture emerges not only of the facts that govern the issue, but more importantly how the actors involved process information and reach their conclusions.

A report like this one from Greenpeace, no matter its scientific merit, is an important read for everyone concerned about nanotechnology's future because it's a window into how the organization filters its information. Understanding – not necessarily agreeing, but understanding – can go a long way toward developing strategies to avoid ugly public confrontations like the battles over genetically modified foods. Greenpeace is a potentially powerful worldwide thought leader that can have a huge influence over public opinion, and the nanotech industry ignores or belittles it at its own peril.

That's why I was quite surprised at the reaction of NanoBusiness Alliance Executive Director Mark Modzelewski to this report. He attacked it as “industrial terrorism," telling Small Times correspondent Douglas Brown, "It’s a great way to raise new funds and pretend they care about something. The reason these groups care about nanotechnology is because they view it as the next industrial revolution. And, to them, slowing it down, creating fear and upsetting people is their means of creating a choke point on the development of industry and technology. They saw how it worked on genetically modified foods, and so this is a great way for them to do the exact same thing.”

Not a very astute way of representing nanotech as a responsible industry that takes public opinion into account. Modzelewski's comments, in fact, conform perfectly to Greenpeace's hard-wired view of industry – no matter what industry – as inherently irresponsible and self-interested, in need of watchdogs to keep them in check.

In fact, the report states right near the front that nanotech business alliances worldwide have been formed for the sole purpose of translating research into products and to build enough momentum behind the industry that any attempts to put the brakes on it as a result of public debate or input would be irrelevant. Enter Modzelewski, right on cue, seeming to confirm that the nanotech industry is dead set against any kind of slowdown or pause to think about the long-range impact of what it's doing.

That may not have been his intent, but it will be the way Greenpeace interprets the industry's initial reaction to environmental concerns and could set the tone for the debate to come.

In the next post, I'll analyze the Greenpeace report, itself. For now, though, I'll give you a hint: Take out the code words and phrases that are tailored to Greenpeace's audience, and you'll find some sound advice in there for the nanotech industry. As I've written previously, public perception is of paramount concern to anybody who cares about the future of nanotechnology.


Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Buy a Big Bright Green NanoMachine

Reuters quoted me in a story running in today's news cycle: Cutting-edge science creates stain-free pants. Yeah, I know, again with the pants! You'd think it was an obsession of mine. As a bonus, I also managed to weave in a "Star Trek" reference, just to really let my geek flag fly.

Andy Sullivan's report is a decent outline of some of the nanotech products currently available. No, they're not self-assembling particles that will create the fabled Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine (act now, operators are standing by), but the sunscreen, tennis balls and pants do represent the bridge between the old macro economy and the new, more-efficient, accurate and tailored small tech economy. The much-publicized nanopants, for example, is successful because it fills an existing need and fits seamlessly into existing products and markets.

As these small tech products sneak into the macro world, they will lead to increased consumer expectations of quality, accuracy and personalization, pushing more small tech products into the marketplace. So, that's how you get from today's sunscreen and nanopants to tomorrow's products that we can barely even imagine now.

It isn't nanobots in the bloodstream, but the fantastic voyage needs to start somewhere, and right now, the "nano inside" is just in a lot of "stuff.”

Oh, and speaking of green, today's top story on smalltimes.com, Nanoparticles prove irresistible for cleanup of industrial waste, is another illustration of how the environmental movement and nanoscience could walk arm-in-arm into the future. Greenpeace and ETC Group would still be skeptical, though. The question remains: What is the long-term impact this "stuff" (in this case, iron oxide nanoparticles developed by the Institute for New Materials in Saarbrucken, Germany) is going to have on the environment? Excellent question, and I'll have more on this soon.

Yes, that was meant to be a teaser …


Monday, July 21, 2003

How Thor the black lab can save the Earth

thorIf the animal kingdom had a Nobel Prize for peace, my friend's black lab, Thor, would have won it – paws down. Thor always played peacemaker at the local dog park, physically placing his body between battling canines – and, like blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers, sometimes at the expense of his own well-being.

In the spirit of Thor, who sadly passed away a few months back, I'd like to place a few ideas in between all combatants in the snarling, growling nanotech/environment debate and invite them to take a close look at one area in which they are likely to find some common ground: Biomimicry, sometimes also called biomimetics – literally imitating nature. Just as Thor, the ultimate "good dog," should be a model to world leaders, scientists are using other organic beings and processes as models for products that are in complete harmony with the natural world.

Last night, I caught some of CBC's excellent two-part series on biomimicry, part of the Canadian network's "The Nature of Things" series. The show illustrated, for me, how nanotechnology does not need to be developed and perceived as something wholly unnatural, conceived and executed by humans who glop atoms together to create invisible monsters – not if we imitate the universe's most-perfect nanomachines: living organisms.

Among the show's sources: James E. Guillet of Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories at the University of Toronto, who is designing polymers that mimic the activity of the antennae in leaves to detoxify PCBs, and Geoffrey Coates of Cornell University, who is learning from bacteria how to make plastic using carbon dioxide as a feedstock. A number of researchers are taking a close look at the abalone and how it builds its self-healing shell, molecule by molecule. Scientists are hoping to use the example of this simple sea mollusk to learn how to build self-healing bridges and windows, or self-assembling microprocessors and membranes, or coatings that prevent the body from rejecting life-saving medical devices and implants.

One of my favorites is David Oakey in La Grange, Ga., who is using biomimicry to create carpets and other textiles. What he's really selling, though, is a change in the way industry thinks about what it takes from the earth and what it gives back.

Biomimicry is where nanotech turns green, and where the two sides can carefully watch each other and even play together. Thor would have liked that.

Here's some further reading:

Back to Nature: Biomimicry finds engineering solutions in the natural world

Take a look at the shells of sea mollusks for example of nature's nanotechnology

Bell Labs creates micropatterned crystals inspired by nature

Nanofibers could help bones heal, Northwestern researchers report

UCLA mimics original nanotechnologists

Nanotech, biotech research are converging in Virginia

San Diego's Sailor navigates between bio, inorganic worlds

And here are some patents that take the research to the next level:

Porous tissue scaffoldings for the repair or regeneration of tissue

Foam composite for the repair or regeneration of tissue