Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Cosmetics: Facing the (lack of) facts

Paula Begoun, who writes a "Cosmetics Tips" column for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, recently fielded a nanotech question.

Q: A recent news article I read reported that nanotechnology is being used in cosmetic and skin-care products such as sunscreen. There is disagreement about the safety of nanoparticles in these products, particularly in terms of absorption into the skin, and apparently little regulation by any government agency. Do you have a position on these materials? How can a consumer know if nanoparticles are in a particular product? _Natasha, via email

Begoun's answer was refreshingly thorough, thoughtful and accurate, given the limited space she had. I encourage everybody to read her full answer, but if you're in a hurry I'll "bottom-line" it with the excerpt below:

A: ... I have been searching for relevant information to answer your question, and while I do think there are theoretical reasons to be concerned, I can't be any more specific than that, because there is no specific research on the subject, at least not as far as skin-care ingredients go. ... More here

QuoteBot: Lipstick on a guinea pig?
A nano IPO and excuse to run a supermodel pic
'All we have is speculation on toxicity'

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Nanotech's real danger is the nano con

You think "Magic Nano" pulled a fast one on the nanotech business community, watchdog groups and anti-nano activists (and the media that cover them)? Well, that was just a simple case of opportunism by all parties -- the company eager to cash in on the hot nano prefix and think-tanks, activist organizations and media outlets too eager to find a "real world" example in what remains essentially a war between competing hypotheticals.

Anyway, that was amateur stuff compared to Biofriendly Corp.'s alleged nano-hustle. And this apparent long con's mark was the entire state of Texas.

A modern-day Sylvester McMonkey McBean rode into town with his nanotech star-off machine (claiming to clean up diesel pollution) and, in a pitch that would make Mr. Haney proud, flimflammed the state with the nanotech equivalent of McMonkey McBean's "new patent process of polar potoxis of the inner subnuclear nusbaum nogotsis," sold the Lone Star State a whole lot of bottles of 98 percent rubbing alcohol.

More background on "Biofriendly's Texas Scam Adventure" can be found here, along with video clips of a local news station's expose of the apparent long nanotech con.

So far, these nano scams are the only "real world" examples of nanotech dangers that I've come across in five years of writing about this stuff.

How low can nano go?
'Crain's-ing' my neck to see the hype
'Nano' for your aura
Dirty diesel done 'nano' cheap?

The Invisible Man and the Five-Year Plan

invisible   invisibleman

Two publications take top prizes for best illustrations of the "invisible cloak" story that made the rounds late last week. National Geographic opted for the minimalist approach, with its "artist's conception a cloak of invisibility ... arranged against a white background" (pictured above left), while ChinaDaily's editors reached into their Little Red Book of Clip Art and pulled out a wonderfully retro Invisible Man (above right).

But I have to award the grand prize to the mad genius from Imperial College London who could not have been more transparent about the real purpose behind this "story."

Professor John Pendry, from Imperial College London, said that it may not take long to develop an invisible fabric - assuming there is sufficient research into the technology.

"If there is adequate funding, I'd have thought it would take in the order of five years," he said.

Note the use of that "five-year" timetable again. There must be a textbook somewhere in Mad Scientist/Entrepreneur University, where pupils are advised to tell the media that amazing, new sci-fi-type technology is only five years away. The five-year plan is cited often in nanotech stories. It makes sense. It's a short enough time span to get the general public all excited and attract some investor curiosity, yet far enough away so that there probably will be no follow-up stories when the time comes.

Those who invoke the five-year rule should be careful, though. The archives of Google News are not likely to do a disappearing act by 2011.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Is micro nano? A thousand times no

Note to headline writer at PC Magazine: While the components in a MEMS gyro are small, they are not in the nano range. MEMS, by definition, can be measured in microns (the acronym stands for microelectromechanical systems).

Here's one way of thinking about the size difference. Let's say my annual income represents one nanometer. A micron, then, would be the amount of money former Enron executive Kenneth Lay reaped from stock sales in 2001. Yes, the difference is that big.

Bigger bucks for better metaphors
Catchphrase Cop
Merkle and the case of the misleading metaphor

Saturday, May 27, 2006

QuoteBot: Mad Nano Money

madmoney"You're not going to look for a good nanotech company. You're going to look for the least bad one. Science that sounds just legitimate enough to get the crowd behind it. Once you're in, if you're right, the soon-to-be-hot sector will start getting coverage. Brokers will promote this garbage, then it will soar."

Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money"
Quoted in

TINY, Yahoo and Yaweh
Danville and the 'Valley of Death'
Wall Street Gang vs. Green Gang

Friday, May 26, 2006

'Magic Nano' nano? Naahhh

Small Times reports that the "Magic Nano" toxicity scare was really much nano about nothing. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment plunged into the toilet cleaner's ingredients and resurfaced with nein nanotech.

Yet, the story continues at its surreal pace. Erich Pica of "Friends of the Earth" (quotation marks are mine) does his best to synchronize reality with farce by calling for regulations on use of that nano marketing label. Sorry, Apple. Inject some real nanotech into the iPod Nano, or face the consequences.

Related News
German regulators: nano particles not cause of health problems linked to cleaning spray (Associated Press)
Magic Nano Cleared (Nanohype)

Let the facts interfere with your nanotox story

Keithley pioneers nanotech corporate blog


Congratulations to nanotech measurement company Keithley Instruments Inc. for launching one of the first nanotechnology corporate blogs.

Keithley understands that the best way to promote itself is not by issuing bland press releases that are ignored by the press, but by providing interesting and relevant news content that present Keithley's products in the context of larger business, financial, political and societal issues. The company is also providing a place for users and developers of the company's products to exchange ideas on how to improve them. Excellent strategy.

The company's move is braver than you might think. When I present similar strategies to various nanotech companies, I am often met with the sounds of crickets chirping and tumbleweeds tumbling.

TINY, Yahoo and Yaweh

Is nanotechnology a good investment? In reality the answer is nuanced (depends on your ability to handle risk, your definition of a nanotechnology company, whether you're in it for the long haul or for a short time, etc), and significant money has changed hands over the past few years to determine the various answers to that one question.

yahooBut at Yahoo! Answers, the question has been asked and resolved: Yes, nano is a good investment, if you put your money in Harris & Harris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: TINY), pictured above ringing the close of Tuesday's trading day. And the question is closed to new answers, so I guess that settles that.

Then our modern-day oracle gets all mystical on us, and predicts that payoff will come only to investors under 40. This wisdom directly contradicts the ancient Jewish mystics who said Kabbalah should be studied only by those over 40 years old.

There is, of course, a similarity between mysticism and investment analysis, which is why I was quite surprised to see that Yahoo! already had the answers. I personally believe that the search for unbiased nanotechnology investment advice is just as intellectually and spiritually convoluted as playing 18 holes with the Kabbalah's 10 enumerations (Sephirot) of God while avoiding the sandtrap of Zeno's Paradox.

Or, maybe I am misinterpreting the wisdom of Yaweh ... I mean, Yahoo. Perhaps the advice is to hold now and sell at $40?

Related News
Harris & Harris Seeks Some Sun and Surf (By Jack Uldrich, The Motley Fool)
Harris & Harris Group Posts Its First Quarter Report on Its Website (Press Release)

Nanotech an open question at Yahoo! Answers
Zeno, nano and quantum cwaziness
The fundamental (not fundamentalist) 'why'

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Nano hell in Helsinki

Finnish protesters stop nano slavery with spray paint and glue.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Nanobots: The Wonder Years


"Path of Destruction," a movie about out-of-control nanobots, will wreak havoc on your TV this Saturday at 3 p.m. on the SciFi Channel. It's been described as "hilariously bad" and "amazingly awful" by some critics. But how bad can it be, if it features that chick from "The Wonder Years." She's all ... gulp ... grown up now. Run, Winnie Cooper! Run from those 'bots!

'Lost' in nanobot space
Cranky Crichton hasn't a Hollywood 'Prey'er
SciFi and the scientist
NanoBots control the horizontal and vertical
Antediluvian NanoBots

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Listen up, class: Let the facts interfere with your nanotox story

I may be an irresponsible blogger, or whatever, but I'm 40 years old and learned the craft on a manual typewriter from some old-school journalism mentors. If you cut me open, I bleed ink and not pixels.

So, that said, Journalism 101: If the premise of the story is in doubt -- that the "Magic Nano" recall is not really an example of what could go wrong with nanotech products, since there is likely no nanotech in the product -- then you need to change the focus of your story.

Let me repeat this in a clearer way, class. Let facts interfere with a good story.

It's frustrating to read and hear some of the coverage of this "story," since basic rules of journalism are apparently thrown out the window. Science and technology writers, especially, should know that there have actually been no tests showing that nanotechnology is toxic to anything or anyone. The old nanotube rat and buckyball fish studies show that if you pump these beasts full of raw nanoparticles, they'll probably suffocate or become brain damaged.

Any company that dumps a bunch of raw, uncooked, unengineered nanoparticles into any product would not actually be practicing "nanotechnology." So, these oft-repeated studies show absolutely nothing about the potential toxicity of nanotech products. They show that scientists are practicing science, one small step at a time.

Nanotubes and the tale of the rats
A little story about drugs, bass and balls
Nano is a concept by which we measure our pain
How low can nano go?
Groups call for moratorium on nano-named products
Are nanoparticle studies 'one decade late'?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

QuoteBot: Lipstick on a guinea pig?

"These companies are literally treating their customers like guinea pigs."

Lisa Archer, a senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth
During a conference call with reporters today. Environmental activist groups called for sunscreens with nanoscale ingredients to be pulled from the market. Story here.

Update: And the National Association of Manufacturers is telling the neo-Luddites just what they can do with their hammers:

Once again industry is forced to respond to unfounded allegations by a group with a very definite -- and anti-progress -- agenda. We should let nanotechnology flourish, and tell the Luddites to get out of the way. More here

A new wrinkle for Eddie Bauer
Don't hate me because I'm nano-beautiful
Nerd American Idol
Show your face, Procter & Gamble
NPR can't tell Crichton from cosmetics

Philippines to launch NanoPower Revolution: Part II

Philippines energy consultant Nick Nichols reports that Headwaters Technology Innovation Group (the subsidiary where energy firm Headwaters Inc. hides all its nanotech geeks), is close to finalizing a deal to build a large coal-to-gas plant in the Philippines.

Close NanoBot followers might remember that I had correctly picked out Headwaters as a possible company for this deal back when the potential American partner was a state secret. I hadn't noticed that a few months after my 2004 blog post, the company signed a memorandum of understanding in a ceremony attended by the Philippines president and energy secretary. Headwaters handed in its feasibility study in September 2005.

Great, but where's the nano? As I reported in the Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report back in '04, quoting Bruce Springsteen: "You can’t start a fire without a spark." And you can’t change chemistry without a catalyst.

Most catalysts in commercial use today use a metal to set off the reaction – primarily in the platinum group. These metals are used because they’re the most active and can be selectively controlled. But, as any shopper at Tiffany’s can testify, platinum isn’t exactly cheap. Plus, just nano-sizing the stuff isn’t enough.

Tinier particles tend to be more active and want to interact with one another – migrating all over the place and then clumping together, essentially losing this high-surface-area advantage. Not only that, but some surface areas of a catalyst are more-active than others, so another trick is to ensure that the right kind of crystal surface is exposed.

Headwaters has come up with a better way of making catalysts so that particles stay uniform and separated. These nanocatalysts can be used for coal liquefaction in addition to hydrogen peroxide, which goes into polyurethane foam. Other applications include pharmaceuticals, electronics, and titanium dioxide used in sunscreens – anything where you need small particles dispersed uniformly. And a key advantage of Headwaters' process is few byproducts and less waste -- getting closer to truly "green" chemistry.

However, as I pointed out in December 2004, while it's wonderful that the Philippines are going to benefit from decades of U.S. spending on coal liquefaction research, when is the United States going to benefit?

From Wilkes-Barre to Wolfe
Philippines to launch NanoPower Revolution
Headwaters Inc. makes nano waves

Monday, May 15, 2006

A pittance for a nano pen at Johns Hopkins

Johns Hopkins is launching a nanotech research center that will focus on medicine. About $6 million from Hopkins, the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and NASA will prop the doors open at the new Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBiotechnology. To help spread the word, the university is looking for a full-time writer. The salary? "Mid to upper $30's."

I'd apply, except I'd need about four of these jobs to support my four kids, dog and mortgage. It's a phenomenon that I am used to -- this idea that just because anybody can type, anybody can write -- but it still frustrates me at times how low a value is placed on my profession.

India, Iran make Google-eyes at nanotech

Interesting, but not necessarily surprising, result when "nanotechnology" for 2006 is plugged into Google Trends. An explanation of what the rankings mean can be found here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Danville and the 'Valley of Death'

Jerry Gwaltney, city manager of Danville, Va., recently told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that nanotech company Luna Innovations Inc. is creating new employment opportunities in his community. Well, some excellent blog work by Jeff Sturgeon of The Roanoke Times reveals that the company's heavily promoted public-private partnership has broken down, with Luna unable to meet its end of the bargain.

According to a recent SEC filing, Luna will probably have to return some or all of $900,000 it received from host city Danville because it could not meet its investment and hiring targets. And this news comes just ahead of Luna's planned initial public offering.

Back in November 2003, I noticed what I called an "almost desperate wish that nanotechnology will succeed as a last best hope for the economy."

And we all still want this wish to come true. But local and national government officials should also keep in mind that the nanotech business community is selling nothing more than possibilities. Just as nanotech will likely play a part in curing cancer ... someday, nanotechnology will probably drive economic growth ... eventually.

But despite what you may read about a "trillion-dollar" industry, nanotechnology as it exists today plays an insignificant role in most industries and employs very few people outside of academia.

Over the past four years, I have observed a group of disconnected entrepreneurs, scientists and opportunists create the illusion of a "nanotechnology industry" out of sheer will. They are now promising local and national economic revival based on this same mythical industry -- if only the government can give them a boost.

Well, good for the salesmen. I say more power to the mythmakers. It is, after all, the American way to cook up actual opportunity from equal measurements of hokum and hope. But Danville, Va., reminds us that even good intentions and a government handout cannot walk nanotech through the "valley of death" before it is ready to make the journey.

Update: Jeff Sturgeon's Luna story appears in today's Roanoke Times, and he's updated his blog with a link to the Danville city manager's Senate committee testimony.

Learning a living with Luna
Cancer death to cancer detection
The developing world and the myth of industry

What would Edison blog?

Well, we independent nanotech bloggers can fold up our laptops and emerge from our mothers' basements. General Electric is about to blow us all out of the water with a blog From Edison's Desk.

Imagination at Work

Everything old is nano again?

My friends in the molecular manufacturing community are going to crucify me for this one, but this sounds an awful lot like a "desktop nanofactory."

Did Monks try to make gold? (By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News)

May 5, 2006 — A ceramic cone unearthed at a remote British abbey might indicate that Cistercian monks implemented the Benedectine motto "ora et labora" (pray and work) with another rule: "make gold."

On display for the first time at Bylands Abbey, which was founded in 1137 by Cistercian monks in North Yorkshire, the cone is what's known as an alembic.


The alembic could have been used in medicinal preparations, to distill alcoholic spirits by monks who fancied an illicit tipple, or in pursuit of the alchemist's dream — gold.


Following the Aristotelian theory of elements, which stated that all things consisted of fire, air, water and earth, the early alchemists believed that gold could be obtained by altering the elements in a base metal.

A little shift in one metal's composition would have made a metal of low esteem, such as lead, turn into tin, iron, copper, mercury and finally, gold. Alchemists would have also tried to stimulate transmutation with a specific agent — the legendary philosopher's stone. More here

And what was a philosopher's stone? Wikipedia says:
The philosopher's stone, in Latin philosophi lapis, is a mythical substance that supposedly could turn inexpensive metals into gold and/or create an elixir that would make humans younger, thus delaying death.

Nanobots with soft hardware

dendrimer1   dendrimer2

Popular Mechanics gets it: "Not all the new nanobots will look like machines." More here.

Dendrimers could have cancer in their clutches
'Lost' in nanobot space
A response to 'I, Nanobot'

Monday, May 08, 2006

Saturday, May 06, 2006

QuoteBot: Nano Iran

iranflagDr. Maleki: "From Iran's point of view, the nuclear issue is not a real problem. This is part of the overall process of development which is going on in all parts of our society, like nanotechnology, biotechnology, IT and so on ..."

Mr. Kian: "It is amazing to hear about such claims as progress in nanotechnology in a country where there is widespread unemployment, poverty, drug addiction, prostitution, so many women's issues and, finally, political repression and coercion."

From a Voice of America exchange between Dr. Abbas Maleki of Sharif University in Tehran, currently a Harvard Research Fellow, and Bijan Kian, a businessman associated with the American Council on Foreign Relations, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Iran: N is for nano, nuke and not fair
Iran hard-liner: Nano a key to regional power
Israel and Iran going nano

Thursday, May 04, 2006

'Well, God bless nerds'

mitnerds   karl

At left, MIT nano-nerds Rutledge Ellis-Behnke and Professor Gerald E. Schneider. Pictured at right is Karl,"Everyone's favorite wheelchair bound drunk guy"

Karl, an engineer in Cromwell, Conn., has been living with a tumor in his brain stem for six years, according to his MySpace blog. Karl has undergone numerous surgeries to correct paralysis in various parts of his body. But his spirits improved recently when he read about MIT's nanotechnology research. In Karl's words ...

I have been living like this for 6 years, and was able to graduate college as an Engineer. But, my nerves are running short. Something is gonna need to change. I don't think, I can deal much longer. Recently. I thought my only possible chance for change was stem cells. But, then I saw this article: It is titled Nanotechnology maybe able to repair damaged brains. Apparently, some Nerds at M.I.T. have fixed damaged mice brains. Well, God Bless Nerds!!

Karl is asking readers to contact their senators to urge continued funding for this program. Something tells me that funding is not in danger, though.

But Karl's plea does remind me that real lives wait on the other end of nanotech research. And those who would place a moratorium on its development or, conversely, hype it up beyond realistic expectation, should keep people like Karl in mind.

Neuroscientist Rutledge Ellis-Behnke, one of the MIT nerds in charge of this research, said it better in a story written by my friend Charles Choi of UPI:

"There are 550,000 new cases of severe stroke a year, with over 3 million living with the effects of severe stroke today in the United States alone. There are about 100,000 new cases of severe traumatic brain injury a year, with 2 million living with the effects," Ellis-Behnke said. "Those are the reasons I do what I do every day."

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Nanotech an open question at Yahoo! Answers

yahooanswers A student has a nanotechnology report to write, so the eager young nano cadet turned, of course, to Yahoo! Answers (Beta). The following questions are still "open:"

What is Nanotechnology? and ...

How is nanotechnology connected to forensics?

Get your answers in while you can and have your expertise forever enshrined in Yahoo! Not sure what happens after these questions are "closed." I guess we should all find something else to do.

Update: Doing a quick nanotechnology search on Yahoo! Answers, I'm amazed at some of the strange and inaccurate "resolved" information circulating out there. It looks like a lot of kids are using this service to write reports and do their homework. Yahoo! should open these questions up again and give correct information enough time to filter through.

Nanoscientists meet nanocitizens in new video

British think tank Demos continues to play a leading role in gathering scientists and what I've called "consumers of science" together in one room to discuss the necessary tug-of-war between progress and price, between the possible and the desirable, when it comes to nanotechnology.

Between the work of Demos in Britain and the Wilson Center in the United States, the cause of citizen involvement in nanotech development is off to a great start.

The video above shows a final citizen/nanoscientist workshop in Demos' two-year project with Lancaster University on nanotechnology and society. "Governing at the nanoscale."

Here is one of my favorite exchanges on the video:

Citizen: "I think you need to be quite clear that before something becomes a manufactured product and it sells on the marketplace, it has to be safe. Well, OK, within limits, within parameters and within a sensible area but somebody has got to take responsibility for saying that this minimum level of testing has to be performed."

Scientist: "I think as long as I’m honest, I say, ‘Look, I can do this, I can see it could do a lot of good, potentially, and I can’t see any serious way at the moment in which it could be misused,' then that would be fine. But for me to say that it can’t be misused, I think would be wrong. And for me to take away that decision from the public, to say ‘You’re not going to have any of the benefits or any of the drawbacks,' I think you have to let people be sensible."

I have heard echoes of these points of view quite often in my own conversations with concerned citizens and nanoscientists over the past few years. Most citizens understand that with progress also comes risk. What they want is accountability. Who is in charge of getting it right and who is responsible if something goes wrong?

While most nanotech scientists and business leaders are outraged at the thought of denying society the benefits of nanotechnology just because a few people are afraid something might go wrong.

There is room for compromise among thoughtful people. Keep talking.

Between hype and doom: keeping an eye on nanotech, by Jack Stilgoe
Open talk of risk 'makes business sense'
How to fight misinformation in two easy words: Honesty, imagination
Nano environment/policy papers
A new wrinkle for Eddie Bauer

Monday, May 01, 2006

QuoteBot: Wet Dreams and Nano-Hype

nanohype When the Twenty-First Century Nanotechnology R&D bill was being debated, it included a call for a comprehensive SEIN (Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology) center. (Howard) Lovy called a SEIN center "a philosophy and communications department head's wet dream come true," and I have little doubt he was describing me -- and on one level he is correct. For far too long, scientists have simply ignored the role of the public.

David Berube, writing in his book, Nano-Hype

Clash of the Nanotech Titans