Its potential is unknown, and so is its danger. Nanotechnology, once a futuristic idea, is entering commerce through products like sunscreens, food packaging, cosmetics, fabrics and nanomedicine, to name a few.
Nanotechnology explores and exploits the characteristics of conventional materials at a much smaller scale. At the level of a nanometer, a normally inert material like gold becomes combustible. Some of the current fields exploring nanotechnology include:
- Developments in DNA: Using a toolbox of nanobots the size of atoms, researchers investigate ways to study, stretch and experiment with the building blocks of life, DNA.
- Cancer technologies: Attacking tumors is a potential use of nanotechnology.
- Computers: Nanotechnology offers expansive potential from nanowiring, display screens, rechargeable batteries — even a coating to save your smart phone next time you drop it in the water.
The commercial, biological and industrial potential for nanotechnology is sweeping. Nanoparticles already occur naturally in soot and volcanic ash. Sounds great — but what are the risks?
Ideas for uses of nanotechnology have potentially outstripped research to determine its danger to workers and consumers, including:
- At the atomic level, nanoparticles may not break down and instead build up in the body or the environment, causing personal injury or toxic waste.
- Engineering of nanoparticles could create compounds that in turn form bigger particles, with significantly different chemical and physiologic reactivity than intended.
- Regarding penetration of the soil, the water supply or the brain, the behavior of engineered nanoparticles is unknown.
In October, a North Carolina State University research study found Americans want labels on food products containing nanotechnology and are willing to pay more for the product to get it.
Intriguing, tiny and promising, nanotechnology may still pose significant personal and societal risk in years to come.