Nanotechnology will be everywhere this holiday season, and to help people understand the implications of microscale engineering, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology updated its online catalog of nanotech products.
The catalog details products from Apple's iPod Nano, which like many modern electronic devices with flash memory relies on semiconductor manufacturing techniques that require precision below 100 nanometers, to Zelens Fullerene C60 night cream, "which uniquely contain[s] Fullerene C60, an extremely powerful anti-oxidant."
Nanotechnology involves the manipulation and manufacture of materials ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer measures one-billionth of a meter.
"Nano really is a new technology that's beginning to appear in many consumer products," says Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "In many ways, it's a different way of doing things that's leading to products that do what they're supposed to do better. But the fact that it's different means that people are interested in what it can do for them and also what some of the issues might be with how it might affect their health and their environment," Maynard says.
What nanotechnology can do for people—and to them—remains open for debate. The promise is widely acknowledged and is already being felt: Nanotechnology is already incorporated into over $30 billion in manufactured goods, a number that's expected to reach $2.6 trillion by 2014, according to Lux Research. The peril is less clear.
The goal of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology, set up in April 2005 as a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts, is to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of nanoscale engineering.
The project's nanotech catalog lists 356 manufacturer-identified nanotechnology products available to consumers, a 70% increase since it debuted in March. Of the items listed, 229 fall into the health and fitness category.
In an academic paper published in October 2005, "Molecular Characterization of the Cytotoxic Mechanism of Multiwall Carbon Nanotubes and Nano-Onions on Human Skin Fibroblast," researchers from Affymetrix, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of Kentucky, and the University of California San Francisco, found that carbon nanotubes and nanospheres are toxic to human skin cells.
In a November 2005 report published in "Toxicology Letters," New Jersey Institute of Technology scientist Daniel J. Watts found that nanoparticles of aluminum oxide hinder root growth in five species of plants.
Beyond a few formal studies, the benefits and risks of nanoparticles remain largely untested. "In terms of being proven to be hazardous, there are very few specific applications," says Maynard. "One of the problems we face is that because it's a new technology, there are indicators that it may cause problems in some areas, but it's so new that we really don't have specific answers."