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Group aims to play nanotech nanny

The young science of nanotechnology is growing in many directions; the Foresight Institute wants to keep it focused.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
An organization associated with warnings about the potential dangers of nanotechnology wants to be the standards-setting body for the industry.

The Foresight Nanotechnology Institute, a futurist organization that has raised cautionary flags about the unintended consequences of nanotechnology, and the Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages commercial scientific laboratories, have launched an effort to create a road map for nanotechnology, and it has received early support from some notable scientific organizations and companies.

The Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems will essentially seek to set the agenda for the commercialization of nanotechnology, which is the science of building products out of components measuring 100 nanometers or less (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). Roadmap contributors will hold symposiums, provide recommendations on priorities for research, and predict when various nano products may hit the market.

"The question is, Where should we be putting all of these R&D investments into nanotech? Right now, it's scattershot," said Scott Mize, Foresight's president.

Similar efforts, such as the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, have helped other industries coalesce around goals and avoid divergence. These efforts tend to succeed or sink based on who participates.

So far, the road map organizers have gathered many of the early proponents of nanotechnology in North America. Steering committee members include Jim Roberto, chief research officer at Oak Ridge National Laboratories; Steve Jurvetson, a partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a leading nanotech venture capital firm; and John Randall, CTO at Zyvex.

The project is also endorsed by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. The project will initially be funded by a $250,000 grant from the Waitt Family Foundation, established by Gateway founder and nanotech investor Ted Waitt.

Of course, not everyone is a member at the moment. Some of the large multinationals that have already kicked off major nanotechnology efforts--IBM, Intel, DuPont and NEC--are absent, as are large research universities. Organizations in Europe, Japan and the rest of Asia are also missing.

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"We're initially focusing on the U.S. just to get the ball rolling," said Mize. The organization will also recruit large multinationals to become charter members. As in other standards organizations, charter members pay annual dues--often between $10,000 and $50,000?and, in exchange, get an early peak at research directions as well as an opportunity to influence future development.

The Foresight group isn't alone in its endeavors. Several organizations, such as the International Association of Nanotechnology, have also started to lead the way toward establishing standards. Speakers and attendees at the group's conferences include EU representatives, Nobel Prize winners and scientists from Asia and North America.

In a lot of ways, coming up with a road map for nanotechnology will be a far more complex problem than those most standards bodies face. Nanotechnology is expected to influence electronics, medicine, environmental science, manufacturing and other fields, and the issues different companies face in these fields varies.

Foresight divides the evolution into four categories: passive nanomaterials, such as stronger plastics; active nanomaterials, such as chemical sensors; nano devices, such as transistors; and


Correction: This story originally listed Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotech Coordinating Office, as a member of the steering committee proposed by the Foresight Nanotechnology Institute. Subsequent to publication, Foresight learned that Teague would not be available to sit on the committee.
nano systems, or complete semiconductors. Passive nanomaterials in the form of stink-free socks and stain-resistant pants, are already on the market.

Active nanomaterials are expected to hit the market within five years or so.

A controversial beginning
Founded in 1986, the Foresight Nanotechnology Institute is a nonprofit research organization. It gives out the Feynman Prize, named after scientist Richard Feynman. Although it employs only about 10 people full-time, the institute's membership totals more than 15,000. Notable members include mouse creator Doug Engelbart and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

The organization generated worldwide headlines when founder Eric Drexler warned in his book "Engines of Creation" about the dangers of nanotechnology and self-replicating "gray goo" that could conceivably snuff out all life in the universe.

"'Plants' with 'leaves' no more efficient than today's solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough, omnivorous 'bacteria' could out-compete real bacteria: they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop--at least if we made no preparation," Drexler wrote in the book.

Last year, Drexler said that he may have overplayed the dangers of self-replication. Mize further added that gray goo was only one small section in the overall book.

Months after the gray goo clarification, the institute inserted the word "nanotechnology" into its name.

Still, the organization, among others, believes that health hazards--and fears of health hazards--remain one of the largest concerns and barriers to public acceptance in nanoscience.

Although the 100-nanometer definition of nanotechnology was somewhat arbitrary in the beginning, it has gained significance because researchers have discovered that matter begins to behave differently when separated into tiny particles.

For example, carbon, when in nanotubes, conducts electricity better than metals. Nano aluminum will explode on contact with the air.

Early nano-enhanced products consist of ordinary items sporting engineered materials: stain-resistant pants, golf balls that fly farther than ordinary ones, and lighter, stronger tennis rackets.

A little further in the future, nanotechnology will influence the health industry with sensors that can sniff out air- or water-borne toxins or medical implants that can regenerate nerve tissue.

In 10 or 15 years, chains of molecules may replace transistors in memory chips and processors.

Richard Smalley, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered the buckyball molecule, said he believes that nanotechnology will play an important role in weaning civilization off of fossil fuels and in purifying water.