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The Battle between Fear and Greed in the Nanotoxicology Debate

There is no news topic more commonly covered in nanotechnology today than concerns overs its potential environmental, healthy and safety (EHS) impact. There are at least two reasons for this, I believe, one is that bad news or failure is always more compelling to read, and to write, than good news or achievement. And the second is that environmental activists are so much more adept and capable at manipulating the PR machinery than a gaggle of physicists, biologists and chemists.

As far as the former reason, this blogger is as guilty as the next scribe, with the caveat that my ruminations on the subject have been with the aim to provide a little more balance to the issue.

It appears I am not alone. Barnaby Feder at the New York Times waded into the controversy on his â''Bitsâ'' blog and made the rather reasonable, but in todayâ''s atmosphere nearly sacrilegious, assertion that â''â'¿nanotech skeptics, perhaps taking their cue from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are going to war with the weapons theyâ''ve got. With no evidence so far that nanotech is actually damaging anyone, they are focusing on the materials most widely used in consumer products and doing their best to worry the public â''and government officials â'' about potential hazards that have yet to be thoroughly researched.â''

Uh ohâ'¿ â''no evidence that nanotech is actually damaging anyoneâ'' is not going to be taken lying down. A commenter on the â''Bitsâ'' blog cites â''evidenceâ'' from research on fish that disproves Federâ''s assertion. In his defense, I am sure that Feder reserves the term â''anyoneâ'' for those of the human species.

But aside from indefinite pronoun confusion, the idea that tests performed on fish are conclusive evidence of nanotechnologyâ''s toxicity to humans would be jumping the gun somewhat.

There are a number of reasons for this, but not the least of which is that a big problem still persists in the lack of standards and measurement. As a result, two experiments testing the toxicity of nanoparticles may appear to be identical on paper but result in completely different results: nanoparticles are toxic, or nanoparticles are safe.

But as I have argued before this debate will not be resolved by scientific inquiry, understanding and rational policies, it will come down to whether the environmentalists can incite enough fear to overcome industryâ''s drive to make a profit. In other words, fear and greed are the two battling forces, so no need to trouble yourself over â''evidenceâ''.

Another win for Blu-Ray: Neil Young

6H7K0678.1024x768.jpgIn recent years, consumers have been all about video qualityâ''digital, high definition, giant screens, high capacity disks. Audio quality, not so much. In fact, the move to compressed audio stuffed into iPods and other mp3 players and hard disks that act like home jukeboxes has continued the downward trend in audio quality that started with the move from vinyl record to CD.

At least one artist has decided to do something about it. Rocker Neil Young is releasing his audio archives not on itunes, not as a multi-CD boxed set targeted at Christmas shoppers, but on Blu-Ray discs. Actually, a series of Blu-Ray discs, that will start shipping this fall. The discs will include archival video and stills as well as the audio

files. He made this announcement this week at the Sun Microsystems JavaOne Conference; the Blu-Ray discs will use Java for interactivity.

Of course, the vast majority of todayâ''s Blu-Ray players in consumers hands are part of Sony Playstations; itâ''s not clear just how many Playstation owners are Neil Young fans.

Could Blu-Ray, besides knocking out its high-def competitor HD-DVD, and perhaps, eventually, replacing the DVD, kill the CD business as well? After all, DVD-Audio and Super-Audio CD, both high fidelity formats, didnâ''t make much of a difference. However, if you figure that regular listeners will all move to digital downloads, leaving only the audiophiles purchasing round pieces of plastic, perhaps Blu-Ray will finally mean they can stop pining for vinyl. At least they wonâ''t have to have a separate box in their home theaters for audio.

And Neil Young and his fans will have shown the way.

Northwest Nuclear Smackdown

The Northwest Compact just turned down Energy Solutions' proposal to bury some of Italy's nuclear waste in the fair state of Utah.

Why is that important? Because it's going to set off serious fireworks of drama this summer. Just you wait.

Here's the back story: Last fall, EnergySolutions a nuclear waste disposal company that's been accused of some shady dealings in the past, applied with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to import 20,000 tons of low-level nuclear waste (LLW) from Italy for burial in their nuclear waste dump in Clive, Utah. LLW isn't the bubbling containers of green goo of Troma Films. It's the lowest class of nuclear waste-- tissues you sneeze into on the hot side of the reactor; boots or gloves that have some contamination but not enough to merit disposal with high level waste. But still. It's other countries' nuclear waste, the ultimate NIMBY. And this isn't a one-time deal: EnergySolutions plans to make importing other countries' LLW its business.

Well, Bart Gordon's head fell off. Gordon, who is chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, immediately introduced a bill banning all importation of foreign LLW. You can't blame him. This would set a terrible precedent for other countries that have no place for their nuclear waste, basically telling them that the western US is a logical choice for the world's nuclear waste dump. (It didn't work in Australia either.)

The Northwest Compact is the federally mandated entity in charge of the Northwestern US' low level nuclear waste. Utah is within the NW Compact's purview. So, earlier today, the NW compact handily smacked EnergySolutions down.

But here's the catch. EnergySolutions is a private company. As such, the company maintains that its private nuclear waste dump is not bound by the rules that govern the federally controlled nuclear waste dumps. So on Monday, probably anticipating today's outcome, they filed a pre-emptive suit.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, meanwhile, is letting people comment until June 10. (Over 1000 comments so far.) Then it will issue its own decision. If the NRC trumps the NW compact and rules in favor of EnergySolutions, there will be a huge catfight in Utah. If Rep. Gordon's bill gets passed, there will be a huge catfight in Congress, as all of the NRC appointees were put there by President Bush. They're not going to enjoy being told how to do their jobs.

Stay tuned.

Nanotechnology continues its rush into consumer products while nanotech legislation slowly percolates through Congress

nano01.jpgNano is hot. Apple isnâ''t the only one to call a product the Nano, thereâ''s also a car by that name, and I have a feeling itâ''ll label more than a few kindergarten cubbies in a couple of years; forget Madison and Montana, what could be hipper these days than naming your little sprout Nano? Weâ''re brushing our teeth with Nanowhitening Toothpaste, putting our kids in Nano-tex pants, fixing furniture with NanoGlue, smoothing our skin with Nano-Gold Energizing Cream, trying to lose weight by popping nanoSlim pills, and using some 600 other consumer products containing nanoparticles. (Itâ''s amazing what people will buy because it sounds high tech.)

Thatâ''s about a hundred more than existed last fall, when Spectrum authors Barbara Karn and H. Scott Matthews warned that research in nanotechnology safety is falling behind its commercial progress, and that the technology has the potential to be the next major environmental and health disaster.

A three-part PBS series this month makes the same point. â''The Power of Small,â'' produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and funded by the National Science Foundation, looks at the potential impacts of nanotechnology on privacy, security, health, and the environment. Check here for local broadcast information; broadcasts started last month and continue throughout May. You can also watch excerpts online. Spectrumâ''s reviewer says it could have been done a lot better, but at least itâ''s a start in building awareness.

And itâ''s worth making yourself aware of at least the potential for risk, because nanotechnology continues its rush into the consumer marketplace. Last year, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, $88 billion worth of products containing nanoparticles were sold worldwide.The fastest growing categoryâ''health and fitness. The most popular nanosubstance is silver, carbon is in second place, followed by zinc, titanium, silica, and gold.

In most cases, the nanoparticles are accepted by the consumer and regulators without question. Not always. In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined IOGear, a manufacturer of computer peripherals, for marketing keyboards and mice that purported to contain antimicrobial properties without registering the products as containing pesticides. Products with pesticides cannot be sold unless theyâ''ve been tested to show that they wonâ''t harm the user under normal conditions. IOGear stopped making the antimicrobial claims, though it didnâ''t necessarily stop using the nanoparticle coating on its devices.

The U.S. Senate has begun to debate the future direction of its funding of nanotechnology research. In HR 5940, the National Nanotechnology Initiatives Act of 2008, it may strengthen the environmental safety and health aspects of the federal nanotechnology research program. After hearings in April, the bill was referred to the House Committee on Science and Technology, you can follow its progress here.

Maker Faire Highlights: Mechanical Mathematics

Probably the most complex mechanical contraption at Maker Faire was the Computer History Museum's model of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2. Babbage began working on the idea for a mechanical calculator based on the method of finite differences in 1846, but he never actually built the device. The museum showed off a scaled down, table-top model at Maker Faire and demonstrated how it works.

Babbage-Engine---Full-View.jpg

If you're interested in the history of Charles Babbage and his work (both on the Difference Engine and his Analytical Engine, which preceded modern programmable computers), check out James Essinger's book Jacquard's Web. Spectrum editor Tekla Perry will have more coverage when the museum puts the full-size Difference Engine No. 2 on display on May 10th. The machine is 11 feet long and 7 feet high with more than 8000 bronze, cast iron, and steel parts.

Desertification Studies Cut Both Ways in Climate Debate

For feelings of timelessness, unboundedness, and permanence, nothing beats the Sahara Desert. Yet as recently as 14,800 years ago, vast reaches of it were green, as a stronger summer monsoon enabled lakes, wetlands, grass and shrubland to expand upwards from the Sahel. Then around 6,000 years ago, with increased incoming sunlight and a weakening monsoon, desertification set it. But was that process fast or slow? Is it a case in point for those sounding alarms about â''abrupt climate changeâ''â''change that takes place too fast for humans and ecosystems to adapt?

Research appearing tomorrow (May 9) in Science magazine, with an accompanying commentary by Jonathan A. Holmes of the Environmental Change Research Centre at Londonâ''s University College, finds that the change in fact was gradual. S. Kröpelin of the University of Cologne (Köln) and colleagues studied sediments in Lake Yoa to extract information about pollens, salinity, and dustiness. â''The continuous and well-dated pollen record for this site shows no abrupt change in vegetation in the mid-Holocene,â'' comments Holmes. â''The rise in Lak Yoaâ''s salinity was rapid, but this was almost certainly a response to a local threshold being crossed as the lake changed from hydrologically open to hydrologically closed, rather than to abrupt climatic drying.â''

Last weekâ''s Science (May 2) contained a report by Kiel Universityâ''s Lothar Stramma and colleagues reporting a different kind of desertification. Studying intermediate-depth waters in selected tropical ocean regions, they constructed a 50-year history of oxygen concentrations. What they found was that huge underwater oxygen-starved deserts are rapidly expanding.

In Obama-McCain World, Is Carbon Regulation Inevitable?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain cosponsored the first major U.S. bill to establish a carbon trading system, and the likely Democratic nominee Barack Obama is cosponsoring a lineal descendant of that bill. So itâ''s a foregone conclusion that weâ''ll have legislation next year regulating and cutting carbon emissions, right? Not necessarily, to judge from the degree to which criticism is rising, not just on the political right but on the left as well, of the mainstream approach to reducing climate change risks.

In March this blogger reported on a conference in New York where climate skeptics showed force. Many of them were sponsored by small research organizations of neoliberal complexion (to use the European lingo; in the United States, at least as far as economic theory and policy is concerned, weâ''d say neoclassical). In those circles, the idea of mandating carbon trading is seen as statist and almost communistic.

Ironically, the carbon trading concept has come under considerable attack on the political left as well, to judge from a conference that took place a month later in New York, the Left Forum. Many socialists, it was apparent, viscerally dislike the idea of handing out emissions permits to big corporations that the companies can then trade, possibly for illicit profit. In one session, Karen Charman, the managing editor of a journal called Capitalism, Nature, Socialism argued that the Kyoto Protocolâ''s Clean Development Mechanismâ''the rules that allow emitters in first-world countries to obtain permits to pollute by funding emissions-reduction projects in third-world countriesâ''involves conjuring with imagined futures that corporations can shamelessly manipulate. When it was pointed out to her that her arguments were similar to those offered up by libertarians and climate skeptics, she said, irrefutably, â''That doesnâ''t mean theyâ''re wrong.

For a sampling of left critical opinion about carbon trading, find the December 2007 issue of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, which contains a long scholarly article drawing attention to a huge dump in Durban, South Africa, which local anti-pollution activists sought to close but which now is getting a new lease on life under the CDM, with plans to capture and burn methane to generate electricity. The February 2008 issue of Z Magazine contained an article by Anne Petermann detailing attempts by organizations representing indigenous peoples to get their voices heard at the Bali climate conference last fall: â''Carbon finance mechanisms [like CDM] result in forests being transferred or sold off to large companies who aim to acquire profitable â''carbon creditsâ'' at some point in the future,â'' a petition by the organizations complained.

The Carbon Connection, a short documentary film produced by Fenceline Films in partnership with TNI Environmental Justice Project and Carbon Trade Watch, juxtaposes two communities, one in Scotland, one in tropical Brazil. Though utterly lacking in â''production values,â'' not to mention context, narrative or analysis, the film vividly captures the essence of the left critique. In the Scottish town, a huge BP refinery continues to pollute, in part because it is able to obtain carbon emissions permits by funding reforestation in Brazil. But in a Brazilian community near where forest plantations are being expanded, water is diverted to feed the trees, leaving people who have depended on it for generations high and dry.

Power of Small: Tedious and Largely Irrelevant

I finally stumbled upon the website for â''Power of Small: Nanotechnologyâ'', the PBS program intended to enlighten us about nanotechnologyâ''s promisesâ'¿and threats. Needless to say I wasnâ''t breathlessly looking for it. So after having forewarned of it two months ago, I actually watched some of it.

Based on the early PR, I was expecting a documentary, but instead it follows the Fred Friendly model of a panel discussion. I waded in undeterred, but my interest quickly waned.

By and large based on what I did watch, I agree with David Berube of Nanohype, who clearly has far more patience than me as he watched all the clips.

The clips are organized around three topics of discussion: Privacy, Health and Environment.

For the privacy section, Berube notes, â''There is little distinction about how nanoscience will sufficiently increase the privacy concerns given microchips are already available.â'' Weâ''re in agreement there.

On the health part, the discussion quickly descends into 150-year life spansâ'¿sigh. Again, how you pin this problem of extended life on nanotechnology is unclear as Berube argues â''Then we move to genetic switches that affect aging. We donâ''t need nano to engage in genetic engineering.â'' Exactly.

The third portion on the environment engages mainly in hypotheticals. While Berube finds this section worth watching, he does complain that is based on the counterfactual argument.

To me it just gets all a little silly with continual references to the hypothetical â''Admiral Chickenâ''. But what is disturbing is that a representative of the Mercury News maintains that even if Admiral Chickenâ''s anti-salmonella packaging is approved by the FDA, and the company argues that its properties are proprietary, she would go investigating if she suspected that there were â''nanotechnologyâ'' involved.

Has â''nanotechnologyâ'' become the latest item to uncover in probing investigative journalism? I suppose that the Mercury News wouldnâ''t concern itself if a food manufacturer was using petroleum products in its packaging, but didnâ''t reveal the specifics of how they made the packaging.

As Berube argues this panel format is not the proper way to approach the subject of nanotechnology. What you get is strange hypothetical questions posed by a moderator and getting off-the-top-of-their-head responses from the panelists. Additionally, none of it is edited, so meaningless comments are given the same weight as the important ones.

Someone needs to sit down and try to do this right, not just gather together some panelists in a TV studio for an afternoon and asking some fairly strange questions.

Maker Faire Highlights: My Favorite Robots

If there's one thing you can count on at Maker Faire, it's the presence of robots. They're everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Sure, it was impossible to miss the giant electric giraffe, but size isn't everything.

Take Herbie the Mousebot (a robot kit from Solarbotics) - if you judged just by the number of delighted smiles and giggles coming from children's faces, this had to be the winner. The little robot has a light sensor that it uses to follow around a beam of light from a flashlight. It also has whisker and tail sensors that make it turn around when it hits your foot or starts to go under the couch. Brilliant! It's smart, cute, and simple. Made solely of discrete components, it looked fun both to build and to play with:

As cute as Herbie was, how could he possibly compete with one of the world's most loved androids? That's right, I'm talking about R2-D2. The R2-D2 Builder's Club were also a big hit at the Faire, showing off their handcrafted, chrome-domed creations. In some ways, they're even better than George Lucas's original (for one thing, they don't require a tiny man inside). Check out the video to see the droids in action and find out what makes them tick:

And I always have room for the just plain weird. Voxhead is a robot with a neck, head, and one arm. He sits on a table making bizzare sounds (even after you know that he's supposed to be singing Radiohead's "Creep," it still takes a lot of imagination). While it's easy to just slap a speaker on a robot to make it talk, Voxhead sings the hard way, by replicating the human vocal cavity (complete with artificial tongue). Its creator, Mike Brady, wants to use Voxhead to probe the ways we learn to communicate - the robot itself learns by listening to its own attempts to mimic sound and trying to improve. Voxhead's the android equivalent of a babbling baby. Take a listen yourself:

Maker Faire Highlights: What's Old is New Again

Maybe it's due to the rapid pace of technological development, but for some reason, nothing seems to bring a smile to a geek's face quite like antiquated electronics. If you have a soft spot for such relics, Maker Faire was a good place to be. Faire-goers constantly stopped by our booth to marvel at Keith Bayern's transistor clock, the winner of IEEE Spectrum's digital clock contest. Completely devoid of integrated circuits, Bayern's clock uses nearly 200 transistors and took him nearly two years to design and build. The finished product, in addition to keeping time, is a beautiful piece of technological art. (If you're interested in building one of your own, Bayern sells kits at http://www.transistor-clock.com) Keith explains his project below:

Like one of our runner-up clocks in the contest, nixie tubes are also a popular blast from the past. In Eric Schlaepfer's booth, he had a variety of clocks utilizing both nixie and cathode ray tubes. He also showed off his collection of vintage oscillograph machines. Check out the old-school paper capacitors:

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