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A sign prohibiting the use of mobile phones while driving in the UK. - 

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Some things are just nails on a chalkboard. When I'm in a movie theater and really lost in the story, it's aggravating when someone's cell phone goes off. You've probably had that happen to you as well. Ever wish you could put a stop to it? A new technology could provide a very colorful answer. Lisa Napoli explains


LISA NAPOLI: Mixers and measurement devices in this lab near Rochester, New York have helped Mark Riedlinger and his staff make a discovery that's got its roots in nature.

Clay found in Utah contains tiny natural tubes, just a hundred billionths of a meter.

Riedlinger's team at the publicly traded company Natural Nano coated and filled those super-tiny tubes with different metals and they found they could create radio frequency shielding material. Meaning something that blocks cell phone signals from getting through.

Those nanotubes added, say, to paint could solve a lot of noise pollution issues wherever that paint was applied.

Like say, at the movies.

MARK RIEDLINGER: The movie operator could literally throw a switch, disable use of cell phones and once the movie is completed, or perhaps during an intermission, could be switched on again.

Natural Nano has been fielding phone calls ever since word got out about the invention. Pastors interested in how to silence phones from ringing during church services. School administrators interested in how to keep phones from working in classrooms.

They know that asking people to turn off their cell phones doesn't always work. But intentionally blocking them has legal consequences.

HAROLD FELD: We don't really want to have people wandering into artificial dead zones without people knowing about it.

That's Harold Feld of the Media Access Project in Washington. He says there's a law that prevents intentionally jamming any type of signal that's licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

Now, the nanopaint isn't slated for commercial production anytime soon, but Feld says the very idea of it opens an interesting legal debate: The paint itself isn't technically a jamming device, although the intent of the paint would be to jam.

FELD: The only reason people are making this paint is to block cell phone signals or other kinds of signals. It's not even like 'this paint is really more durable or this paint is brighter or whatever, oh and it happens to block cell phone signals.' It's like 'no buy this paint because it blocks cell phone signals,' and that's a very blurry line in the law right now.

But the technology moves a lot faster than the law does.

The debate is sure to get more intense. Just recently, the head of the national association of Theater Owners said recently that his group might petition the FCC to allow venues to block cell phones to make going to the movies a more pleasant experience.

And that could make Mark Riedlinger's sound-blocking nanotubes into the next big thing.

I'm Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.