Nanotech The Next Big Thing

Everyone seems to be talking about nanotechnology. While it is expected to become a multi-trillion dollar industry over the next decade, fears are being raised about adverse health, safety, and environmental effects, and about potential misuses for terrorism, including bioterrorism.

These tiny, tiny particles are generating a big, big debate about how to establish sound policies that allow the technology to flourish while assuring risks are measured and addressed. What is the government doing about it? And how will it affect the converting industry?

Most of the government's effort to date has been to promote the development of nanotechnology. In 1996 the Clinton Administration created the National Nano-technology Initiative (NNI), raising the profile of nano-tech science to the federal level. Nanotech R&D also is a priority of the Bush Administration. Legislation authorizing nano-tech R&D, the 21st Century Nano-technology Research and Development Act, was adopted last year, and federal funding for nanotechnology has increased multiple times since 1997, with close to $1 billion in funding requested for 2005.

Multiple federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Inst. of Occupational Safety and Health, and many agencies involved in security, participate in the NNI. Congressman Mike Honda (D-CA) is developing legislation to promote a public/private partnership to “close the gap” between R&D and commercialization, and Senator George Allen (R-VA) is forming a Congressional caucus on nanotechnology.

According to NNI, “nanotechnology” involves:

  • Research and technology at the atomic, molecular, or macromolecular scale (length scale of approximately 1-100 nanometer range).
  • Creating and using structures, devices, and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small/intermediate size.
  • The ability to control or manipulate on the atomic scale.

Commercial products based on nanotechnology, including stain-resistant fabrics, improved sunscreens, and sports equipment, are available, but NNI says nanotechnology is in the “pre-competitive stage.”

Potentially, the applications for nanotechnology are almost limitless. Much excitement has surrounded the possible use of nanotechnology in the early detection of cancer. It could make polymers significantly stronger; it shows potential for use in environmental remediation; and it could be used in catalysis. Nano products are used or expected to be used in coatings, inks, biolabeling devices, digital products, filtration, sensors, and pharmaceuticals. They may help improve energy efficiency and possibly could indicate spoilage or contamination in packaging.

In short, nanotechnology has the potential to affect our daily lives in many ways.

Yet, despite the enormous promise, there are also enormous unknowns. The unique physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials may result in unique biological properties and effects and may prove toxic. EPA is soliciting more research proposals on the toxicity of nanomaterials, while some environmental activists have called for a halt in further development until more is known about the effects.

Ethicists are considering the implications, and policymakers are examining how — and if — regulatory programs designed to safeguard the public apply.

Equally important, for nanotechnology to reach its vast economic potential, much more investment in the educational infrastructure will be needed. Commercialization will require interdisciplinary coordination among physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers, meaning reversing the decline in graduating scientists in the US will have to be a vital goal.

It also will be crucial for industry to adopt self-regulatory standards for quality, purity, and safety, and to identify nomenclature and classes of nanomaterials. Industry experts must apply lessons learned from the biotechnology debates, in particular, calls for application of the precautionary principle. They must work to gain public understanding and acceptance, and they must offer policymakers guidance on the good, bad, and indifferent aspects of the technology so it can flourish with confidence.

For converters, nanotechnology may affect the development of innovative packaging with improved barrier properties, biodetection capabilities, antimicrobial properties, and more. The breadth of nano-technology and the associated public policy debate about governing it will affect the converting industry in ways we cannot yet fully understand.

Sheila A. Millar, a partner with Keller and Heckman LLP, counsels both corporate and association clients. Contact her at 202/434-4143; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.;

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