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Harnessing Nanotechnology

As field develops, scientists gather to take stock and look to the future

by Susan R. Morrissey
April 19, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 16

Nanotechnology--including materials like carbon nanotubes illustrated here--has the potential to be the next Industrial Revolution.
Nanotechnology--including materials like carbon nanotubes illustrated here--has the potential to be the next Industrial Revolution.

The field of nanotechnology is getting a lot of attention these days. Many scientists and policymakers are excited over the potential impact of this field on areas such as energy, public health, and the environment. But despite this bright future, it's the potentially harmful implications of the science as detailed by some media outlets and science-fiction literature that is garnering the interest of the general public.

Creating an environment that recognizes and addresses public concern, while encouraging continued research and development, is a key challenge facing the nascent field. That challenge was a major topic of discussion at a recent nanotechnology conference. Held in Washington, D.C., in early April, the meeting, called National Nanotechnology Initiative: From Vision to Commercialization, brought together approximately 400 scientists from academia, industry, and the government to assess the state of the field and discuss its future direction.

Support for nanotechnology continues to grow inside government and industry. The rapid pace of this support was reviewed by several policymakers at the conference.

"Nanotechnology refers implicitly to a set of capabilities at the atomic scale that grew steadily throughout the last half of the past century into the basis for a true technology revolution in our society," said John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. It was only recently that "we actually had the instruments to make atomic-level measurements, and the computing power to exploit that knowledge."

As scientists and engineers develop and study nanomaterials, the materials are finding their way into commercial products. For example, such materials are already used in transistors, water- and stain-resistant textiles, automotive components, and tennis balls.

"Perhaps most striking to me is the news this week that nanomanufacturing is arriving in Danville, Va.," said Phillip J. Bond, undersecretary for technology at the Department of Commerce. "Danville is in rural southwest Virginia. Yet, Luna Innovations is investing $6.4 million to establish a facility there for the production of cost-effective, carbonaceous nanomaterials--like buckyballs and carbon nanotubes--to be used for R&D of new military and commercial applications," he explained. He continued that if nanotechnology has made it to Danville, "it is fair to say that nanotechnology--and nanotechnology-related jobs and economic growth--is no longer science fiction, but economic reality."

AN IMPORTANT DRIVER that is moving the field to real applications is the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Officially set up in 2000, the initiative provides a long-term R&D focus for nanotechnology and coordinates federal government efforts in this area (C&EN, Oct. 16, 2000, page 39).

NNI funds research on fundamental science and engineering, on targeted R&D on a set of nine "grand challenges," and on the societal impacts of nanotechnology. The initiative also supports 17 centers of excellence that conduct broad multidisciplinary research within a host institution and seven user centers for the development of infrastructure, instrumentation, standards, and computational capabilities that can be used by the research community.

According to Mihail C. Roco, senior adviser for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation, all R&D sectors have received NNI support. Between 2001 and 2003, NNI invested 65 to 70% of its funding in academic institutions, 25 to 30% in research laboratories, and about 5% in industry. He also noted that industrial support of nanotechnology is increasing, and industry's long-term investment may surpass the federal NNI budget next year. This shift is to be expected as the field continues to mature, he says.

The current level of funding for NNI is $961 million--nearly twice the level the initiative was given when it was established just three years ago. The Administration's request for the 2005 fiscal year calls for a 2% increase to $982 million. The largest share of the funds is managed by NSF, which is responsible for providing the fundamental science underpinning the field.

While most of the 10 agencies that receive a share of the NNI budget will see an increase in funds in 2005, rescheduling of several projects at the National Institute of Standards & Technology and the reassignment of applied nanotechnology projects to the respective areas of relevance at the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics & Space Administration will result in a decrease in funding at those agencies.

The U.S. is not alone in its funding of this small science. According to Roco, the global government investment in nanotechnology--in part stimulated by NNI--is about $3.5 billion. Currently, the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe are the biggest investors in the area, with investments approaching $1 billion for each.

"Across the world, nations are investing in the research, development, technology, infrastructure, education, and training that will enable them to compete and win in a technology-driven global economy," Bond said. But he warned meeting attendees that they must address any concerns the public may have about the safety of the technology so that progress in the field is not held up by public fears.




◾ Nanostructured materials by design, led by NSF.
◾ Manufacturing at the nanoscale, led by NIST and NSF.
◾ Chemical-biological-radiological-explosive detection and protection, led by DOD.
◾ Nanoscale instrumentation and metrology, led by NIST and NSF.
◾ Nanoelectronics, -photonics, and ­magnetics, led by DOD and NSF.
◾ Health care, therapeutics, and diagnostics, led by NIH.
◾ Efficient energy conversion and storage, led by DOE.
◾ Microcraft and robotics, led by NASA.
◾ Nanoscale processes for environmental improvement, led by EPA and NSF.

For the U.S. to remain at the global forefront of nanotechnology, all parties must remain committed to and open about the science. Last November, Congress showed its long-term support by passing the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act (C&EN, Nov. 24, 2003, page 20), which President George W. Bush signed into law in December. The bill formalizes NNI and authorizes $3.7 billion for R&D over the next four years. Although specific funding is not designated, the law calls for more support for research into the societal and ethical impacts of nanotechnology--an area key to the future of the science--in addition to R&D.

"There is no question that NNI has a big price tag," especially under the current budgetary constraints, said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was one of the sponsors of the bill. "But this is an investment we can't afford to pass up," he added.

The cosponsor of the House version of the bill, Rep. Michael M. Honda (D.-Calif.), agreed. He is drafting legislation to provide additional help in moving nanotechnology into commercial products. The bill, which the representative's spokesman, John P. Staunton, said they hope to introduce later this year, would create a public-private partnership to address the funding gap between research and commercialization--sometimes called death valley. "The idea is at the conceptual stage right now, and we are looking for feedback from the scientific community on many of the details, such as what parameters would make such a program attractive to private investors and how to deal with intellectual property issues," Staunton said.

The driver for a policymaker's interest in nanotechnology is its potential for job creation and economic benefit. "The notion of nanotechnology is emblematic for U.S. competitiveness," said David Goldston, House Science Committee chief of staff.

Goldston cautioned the researchers and others at the meeting to be open and straightforward about nanotech research and to avoid the pitfalls that plague biotechnology. "We need to study the problems and come up with solutions, not rhetorical arguments," he explained.

"This is a prime time to intervene and address emerging concerns," Goldston said. He noted that the public and members of Congress have only a vague understanding of nanotechnology and have not yet developed any preconceived notions about the field. "People are still willing to listen," he said, adding that Congress is looking for open discussion to increase its understanding of the field.

To help the flow of scientific-based information to policymakers, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) announced at the meeting that he was setting up a congressional nanotechnology caucus. Allen was a cosponsor of the Senate version of the Nanotechnology R&D Act of 2003. The nonpartisan caucus will give scientists and engineers a point of contact on Capitol Hill and will keep nanotechnology issues in front of Congress.

"You need to be the spokesmen and spokeswomen for the field," Allen told the meeting attendees. In addition to providing information to Congress, researchers must ensure that the public understands the emerging technology, he said. "People in the general public are still susceptible to misinformation," he pointed out. Allen, like many of the presenters, singled out Michael Crichton's novel "Prey" as a common source for misguided myths relating to nanotechnology.

"We cannot put our heads in the sand and ignore arising fears and anxieties," Honda said. "It is part of our responsibility as policymakers and scientists to bring the public along as technology advances."

To accomplish this, scientists must be aggressive in their local communities as well as with policymakers, Bond noted. Scientists must speak up and correct misguided reports when they see them.

A number of meeting speakers cited the study presented at the American Chemical Society national meeting held last month in Anaheim, Calif., as an example of why researchers must play an active role in responding to incorrect media reports. The study--done by Eva Oberdörster, a toxicologist at Southern Methodist University, Dallas--looked at the toxicity of aqueous C60 and found that juvenile largemouth bass living in an aquarium filled with C60-contaminated water experienced brain damage (C&EN, April 5, page 14).

There was a general feeling that much of the media coverage misrepresented the study's results. Although that coverage may have been alarmist and disappointing from a scientific standpoint, Commerce's Bond noted that there is more to the story.

"This study proves that our system of checks and balances is working to protect public health and the environment," Bond said. Because the work was done using federal funds, Bond also pointed out that the research is a good example of the government's commitment to ensuring public health by studying the potential negative implications of nanotechnology.

It is important not to let media reports or science fiction drive nanotechnology, Wyden explained. Rather than freeze research on the basis of unsupported fears or preliminary research results, more studies should be funded to gain a more complete understanding about the implications of small science, he said. In other words, the field should be driven solely by the scientific and technological developments.

To this end, researchers must help the public separate scientific fact from science fiction, Marburger said. An important path to help increase the public's understanding of nanotechnology and reduce the propagation of myths is education and public outreach.

Many meeting participants believe that education in nanotech must begin as early as possible. NSF's Roco explained that education and awareness of the field is already reaching younger audiences. For example, when NNI was formed, only a few graduate classes were offered in the area, he noted. Courses began to appear at the undergraduate level in 2002 and at the high school level in 2003. By 2005, he said, nanotechnology concepts will begin to appear in elementary education.

THE SHIFT to earlier education will require a "reversal of the pyramid of learning," where science education is not based on single disciplines but rather is a presentation of unified scientific concepts, Roco explained. The change in philosophy will help create excitement in children about science early on, before the educational focus shifts to an individual discipline, he said.

"We are moving very fast, and educational institutions may not be ready" to embrace the new material, Roco said. Although this rapid movement may lead to some resistance, it is important to get nanotechnology into the schools to prepare the next generation to enter the workforce.


Integrating nanotechnology into the education system also has the support of policymakers, who all note that the potential economic gain from nanotechnology can only be obtained with an educated workforce. And to do that, students need to learn about small science in school. "We can't have big-league nanotechnology with little-league education," Wyden said.

As nanotechnology begins to work its way into formal education, other types of outreach programs are increasing the public's understanding of nanotechnology. One example of a successful outreach program is the traveling exhibit "It's a Nano World." The program was developed and funded by the Nanobiotechnology Center (NBTC)--an NNI center of excellence based at Cornell University--through a grant from NSF. The program is targeted at five- to eight-year-old children, explained NBTC Director Barbara A. Baird. Baird is also a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell.

"The purpose is to introduce children and their families to the biological wonders of the nanoworld," Baird explained. Created with input from scientists, the 3,000-sq-ft exhibit is portable and is currently on display at Disney's Epcot Center, in Orlando, Fla.

Another exhibit developed to educate children about nanotechnology is "Nano." Developed by James Gimzewski, chemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Victoria Vesna, design and media arts professor at UCLA, the 10,000-sq-ft exhibit is housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Boone Children's Gallery.

The exhibit is highly interactive, Gimzewski explained. "The idea is to make nanotechnology something a 10-year-old could enjoy," he noted. "It's just you and the environment."

As nanotechnology continues to mature as a field, education and other outreach programs will become increasingly important. "The work you are doing will have an impact on lots of people," Allen told the audience. "Ensuring the public understands the impacts rests with you," he added.

"The time for action is now," Bond stated. "We need your help to tell the positive story of nanotechnology" and to prevent fanning the flame of fear, he said.

BIG IMPACT Nanotechnology--including materials like carbon nanotubes illustrated here--has the potential to be the next Industrial Revolution.<br > COURTESY OF CIENTÍFICA


  • Nanostructured materials by design, led by NSF.
  • Manufacturing at the nanoscale, led by NIST and NSF.
  • Chemical-biological-radiological-explosive detection and protection, led by DOD.
  • Nanoscale instrumentation and metrology, led by NIST and NSF.
  • Nanoelectronics, -photonics, and ­magnetics, led by DOD and NSF.
  • Health care, therapeutics, and diagnostics, led by NIH.
  • Efficient energy conversion and storage, led by DOE.
  • Microcraft and robotics, led by NASA.
  • Nanoscale processes for environmental improvement, led by EPA and NSF.

FUNDING <br > NSF gets biggest cut of National Nanotechnology Initiative funds





CHANGE<br > 2004­05

National Science Foundation





Department of Defense





Department of Energy





National Institutes of Health





National Institute of Standards & Technology





National Aeronautics & Space Administration





Environmental Protection Agency





Department of Agriculture





Department of Justice





Transportation Security Administration










NOTE: Fiscal years. a Actual. b Estimated. c Proposed. SOURCE: National Nanotechnology Initiative



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