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The Big Future of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology deals in the realm of the nearly invisible. The word comes from the Greek nanos, meaning "dwarf". But by most accounts, the technology's potential is anything but small.

Scientists and engineers can now physically work with materials at the atomic level to create stain-proof fabrics, scratch-resistent paints and longer-lasting tennis balls. And researchers say new medical diagnostic tools and smaller, more efficient fuel cells and batteries based on nanoscience are on the way.

Chad Mirkin is Director of the Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University. According to Mr. Mirkin, "It has only been in recent times that we've had the tools that allow us to manipulate atoms and molecules. There is a big shift here in the way we approach science and the way we approach engineering, and ultimately the way we approach medicine. And I think in many respects it is revolutionary."

From computer chips invisible to the naked eye to microscopic machines that seek out and destroy cancers inside the human body, many scientists contend that the potential of nanotechnology could be endless, but not without controversy.

There are hundreds of nano-enhanced products already in the marketplace. But there are virtually no regulatory guidelines for their manufacture and distribution.

But Kristen Kulinowski, Executive Director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, is optimistic that science will be able to overcome any of nanotechnology's shortcomings. "If we can get a nanoparticle into a cell, that might prove to be a novel and useful drug delivery device," says Ms. Kulinowski. "On the other hand, it might prove to be a toxin to the cell either by punching a hole in the cell membrane or otherwise disrupting the cell's function. We are optimistic that as scientists and engineers, we can actually create particles that will have a benefit and engineer out any potential toxicity."

Still there's near universal agreement among scientists and policy makers that much more research is needed on the health and environmental effects of this new technology.

More than a thousand new businesses around the world devoted to nanotech have opened, half of them here in the United States. But according to Northwestern University's Chad Mirkin, a shortage of scientists able to work in this new field could stall development. Mr. Mirkin says, "I think ultimately it's going to be a big limitation in terms of capitalizing on the developments in nanoscience and nanotechnology in terms of commercialization. A lot of these advances are turning into new companies and new opportunities. My biggest concern is that the U.S. right now is not prepared to take advantage of that."

Nonetheless, the race in nanoscience could generate more than a trillion dollars worth of new products during the next decade and reinvigorate European and American industry, as well as fuel Asia's industrial boom.

Pat Mooney is Executive Director of the ETC Group in Ottawa, Canada -- a non-governmental organization that focuses on technology's impact on society. He says nanotechnology will likely create the next generation of billionaires and reshape global business.

According to Mr. Mooney, "We've probably never before have seen a technology where you can get a patent on, for example, carbon nanotubes and find that they could be used in the pharmaceutical industry, in the automotive industry, in the aerospace industry, in computers, in the food industry, you name it. And so a patent on that can actually mean that you've got a pivotal position across the entire economy."

Some proponents of nanotechnology predict that during this century, microscopic devices implanted in the human body may help reverse the aging process, enhance our senses and even bolster our intelligence. But will these breakthroughs also improve our ability to reason and our capacity for compassion?

M. Ellen Mitchell studies the ethics of nanoscience at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future.

Ms. Mitchell notes, "There's a lot of hype around nanotechnology, that privacy will be disrupted, the military will have capabilities that go beyond imagination. And what's unclear is what's hype and what's realistic, and what should be a cause for concern and what should be really a reason for excitement, and how to structure the regulatory mechanisms in tandem with the discoveries. And I don't know if we should be afraid or if we should be excited or if we should be something else."

Whether the benefits of nanotechnology outweigh the risks will determine the future of what many researchers and investors hope will be the world's next industrial revolution. Meanwhile, most analysts say, society must play an active role in assessing the implications of this burgeoning technology.