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Nanotech not a nano-sized threat

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Kai Ryssdal: Good things come in small packages, the saying goes. And scientists are certainly counting on it.

Nanotechnology has been used in hundreds of consumer products — everything from cosmetics to clothing. Some groups have called for tougher oversight and proof of the safety of nanotechnology. But last week, the FDA declined to require additional regulations for products made with nanotech.

Commentator and chemical engineer Bill Hammack offers some advice.

Bill Hammack: A few years ago, Prince Charles suggested nanotechnology could be a disaster like thalidomide, the 1960s drug that caused grotesque birth defects.

Many of my engineering colleagues like to brush off these comments as alarmist. But thalidomide did show the perils of modern technology, which does have its dangers.

But the nanotech community isn’t listening yet. You see right now, nano is — in the worlds of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb — technologically sweet. That’s when scientists are so enamored of invention, they figure they’ll argue about what to do about the implications later, once a product exists.

Engineers and scientists find nothing sweeter than nano. The U.S. Government is pouring more than $3.5 billion into research right now.

My colleagues dream of the most exotic things. Toothpaste filled with nanoparticles that repair damaged teeth, or pills that are really tiny pacemakers. But the revolutionary aspect can blind a researcher as to how these products will fit into our world.

Just look at nanotech’s unanswered questions. Is it a chemically-toxic substance, or an “ultra-fine particle” like dust, forest fire smoke or volcanic ash?

Can you even patent a nanomachine? Does a nano-sized motor qualify as a new invention? In the past, a simple change in size hasn’t been patentable unless some novelty comes from the miniaturization.

Right now, the government should be investing a sizeable chunk of those billions into scientific, engineering and legal studies that can answer all those questions and more. Otherwise, just like with the biotech industry, fear may take over and possibly cripple the nascent industry.

But if we don’t do it right, you can be sure that the public will bite back at those tiny machines big-time.

Ryssdal: Bill Hammack is a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana.

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