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Nanotechnology Detractors Grumble over Lack of Public Concern

Sometimes it can be just so frustrating when trying to stir up public hysteria and all you get is a shoulder shrug. So goes the lament in this article, entitled â''Fearing the Invisibleâ''Selling Nanotechnology Hazardsâ'' at the Safety at Work blog.

It seems like all the effort to link nanotechnology to asbestos has just not got the public demanding a total moratorium on nanotechnology as some NGOs have proposed.

This lack of response could be that the main evidence that finds a similarity in the behavior between asbestos and some nanoparticles (namely, multi-walled nanotubes (MWNTs)) rests upon research of Ken Donaldson at Edinburg University, which did not really address the issues of dose and exposure.

No, the author of the article is probably right, it has little to do with the science, but rather how effective the sell has been on the connection. At least one of the problems, according to the author, is that itâ''s hard to get people afraid of the invisible. Not sure I am buying that one since the unknown of anything thatâ''s invisible (say, for example, the swine flu virus) does a pretty good job of freaking people out beyond all reason.

The article comes a little closer to the mark when it points out that unlike asbestos, which had visible products such as roofing or insulation materials, nanotechnology may be contained in products but people canâ''t â''seeâ'' the nanotechnology.

Thatâ''s not quite right either, Iâ''m afraid.

I think one possibility not discussed in the article for the causes of the â''Who cares?â'' attitude could be that the idea of over 500 consumer products that use nanomaterials just doesnâ''t stir up a lot of public concern.

Another possibility may be that while ignorance can be fantastic accelerant for fueling public hysteria, it seems in the case of nanotechnology to be mated to such complete apathy to try and learn anything about the subject that it never seems to ignite.

Or a third option might be that the prospects of better treatments to disease like cancer, or improving alternative energy sources like photovoltaics may be a bit of better tradeoff than better pipe insulation and roofing shingles we got from asbestos.

You know, the public may be on to something.

Space Shuttle Heads for Orbiting Telescope One Last Time

The shuttle Atlantis blasted off today on the final scheduled mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

The US $900 million mission, designated STS-125, will rendezvous with the orbiting observatory Wednesday and begin performing a series of procedures in space intended to upgrade the Hubble with sophisticated new equipment that should extend its functionality for years.

During the 11-day trip, astronauts from Atlantis are tasked with installing two new instruments, repairing two inactive ones, and swapping out a number of key components. The crew will perform five spacewalks over five days to complete the servicing operations, one of which will involve installing a replacement for the Hubble's faulty Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit, which failed in September 2008, temporarily blinding the telescope (please see Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble). That equipment failure delayed the current mission for seven months, as NASA labored to construct a replacement.

The crew of STS-125 consists of its commander, Scott Altman, pilot Gregory C. Johnson (Capt., USN Ret.), and mission specialists John Grunsfeld, Mike Massimino, Andrew Feustel, Michael Good, and Megan McArthur.

"The teams here at [Kennedy Space Center] gave us a great vehicle, and ascent was good," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, after the launch. "It was a great start to a very challenging mission."

In a widely publicized move, NASA has taken the unique precaution of preparing another shuttle launch vehicle, for the Endeavour, to sit on a pad at Cape Canaveral and place a four-member crew on standby, just in case a major malfunction should occur during the Atlantis mission. Previous planned missions in years past were canceled for safety concerns. The Hubble travels in an orbit that is much further from the earth than the International Space Station and inhabited by much more debris, or "space junk," raising the level of concern at NASA.

Here's to hoping that the space agency does not have to resort to such a drastic emergency measure.

Life After DARPA


After the end of his 8-year tenure as director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in February, Tony Tether signed on today to become a member of the board of Massachusetts-based Qteros. Qteros as far as I can tell from the dense thicket of jargon in the press release is a technology transition biofuels company.*

What Tony Tether will bring to the company will be experience with transitioning new technologies--the one-off DARPA research results (for example Dean Kamenâ''s Luke Arm prototype) and making such products commercially producible and reproducible.

Qteros makes cellulosic ethanol. The original research came out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Heavy hitters like BP and Valero have contributed investment dollars since.

Qteros, formerly known as SunEthanol, has developed a proprietary, game-changing technology known as "C3" (Complete Cellulosic Conversion), using the Q Microbe. First discovered in Western Massachusetts by Qteros Founder and Chief Scientist Dr. Susan Leschine, the Q Microbe has the unique ability to transform virtually any cellulosic material into ethanol.

As Spectrum editor Bill Sweet explained back in December, cellulosic alcohol has given the new Democratic leadership a graceful retreat from a reckless prior love affair with corn ethanol.

*corrected 5/13/2009

Nanoelectrode probes single cells with minimal damage

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a needle less than 100 nanometers thick that can be used to deliver molecules into single cells and collect electro-chemical recordings. The group has published its work in Nano Letters.

Over the past 5 years, other groups have unveiled similar nano-needles, but to my knowledge there are two characteristics that make this one superior. Instead of tapering to a point, the needle remains the same width along its entire length, allowing researchers to fully insert it without increasing damage to the cell; It is also capable of delivering single molecules into a cell.

It's this second characteristic that makes the development so exciting and could lead to a whole slew of new ways to investigate cells at the molecular level.

The probe is fashioned from a boron-nitride nanotube and then coated in a thin layer of gold that allowed the researchers to temporarily dock molecules onto the tip. Once inside the environment of the cell, the molecules break free from the gold. Min-Feng Yu, the lead author on the paper, used the needle in his own studies to transfer quantum dots into the cytoplasm of living cells.

He expressed his expectations for the device in an email to me:

"The significance of having such functional electrochemical needle probes is that it is now possible to directly interface with biological system at the cellular level and communicate the intracellular activities with external electronic circuitry. This can then potentially lead to the development of bioelectronics at the individual cell level either for the fundamental study of cell [sic] itself or for controlling or exploiting the complex biological processes in cell for practical sensing or other broad applications."

Sun Micro Says It May Have Broken Bribery Laws

In the middle of a blockbuster takeover by Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems has admitted that it may have violated U.S. anti-bribery statutes recently.

According to a news report from the Associated Press, the management at Sun has informed the U.S. Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission that an internal review found evidence of wrongdoing in transactions committed on its behalf. The AP report notes that Sun revealed the potentially illegal activity to executives at Oracle prior to the announcement of its US $7.4 billion acquisition offer three weeks ago. The alleged bribery took place in an unspecified location outside of the United States by one or more unnamed individuals, the AP reported Friday, drawing on public documents filed with the SEC.

The regulatory statements from Sun stated that the Santa Clara, Calif., computer firm had found "potential violations" of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by its employees and that it has since taken remedial measures to begin making amends. The Justice Department and the SEC have reportedly opened investigations into the matter. The AP was unable to get a spokesperson for Sun to comment officially on the news.

Liability for the illicit activity could range from hefty fines to criminal indictments, with the federal government possibly even banning Sun from participation in future government contract awards for a period, a major source of revenue for Sun.

The news of corruption within its midst marks yet another black eye for Sun, which has been roiled by management blunders in recent years. Look for the resignation of a top executive at Sun to be forthcoming in the weeks ahead, at the very least.

EPAâ¿¿s Nanomaterial Stewardship Program is Encouraging to Some and a Failure to Others

Back in January 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a program called the Nanomaterials Stewardship Program in which companies manufacturing products containing nanomaterials would be asked to provide voluntarily information on those materials to the EPA.

In a recent article, entitled Nanotechnology: New Risks but No Rules, published by the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, the author after making a bit of a mess of his nanotechnology definition and array of applications presents two different perspectives on the how the EPA program has fared to date.

Well, not really. He presents one and trots out the other for ridicule. We are initially presented with Richard Denisonâ''s, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, rather dark assessment of the program. We get what I imagine for the author constitutes fair and balanced reporting with phrases like â''â'¿11 months into the program, only 29 companies and organizations had enrolled, submitting information on a mere 123 out of a total of 2,084 potential nanomaterials.â''

In case you didnâ''t notice the words â''onlyâ'' and â''mereâ'' were to indicate to us that these numbers fall rather short of what they should be. And he gets Denison to chime in with agreement. Oh boy, big businesses are being bad.

And to give you further evidence of their bad behavior, the author presents a chemical industry spokesman who says that the voluntary program has been successful in getting the largest players in the field of nanotech to sign up. How dare he, especially after the author and Denison had so clearly established what a failure it is.

After making its main point the article does manage to get down to the real issue facing regulating nanomaterials: do you regulate a material because of its chemical composition or its particle size? You know, are carbon nanotubes graphite or something different?

This is a big issue and so it gets bounced to the back of the article. And what is the answer to this problem? Why put at least $100 million into researching it, of course. Fair enough, but could you maybe give us a theoretical framework by which we reinvent the periodic table?

The funny part of this is that the one specific nanomaterial mentioned in the article, nanosilver, could be a risk not because of its particle size but because silver ions may be released from the product it is integrated into. In other words, its risk appears to be associated with its chemical composition rather than its size.

Oh dear, this does get complicated. Maybe we should make it $200 million.

Former president of India wins the Hoover Medal


Abdul Kalam, third from the left, with the award committee on 28, April 2009

Engineer Abdul Kalam, accepted the Hoover Medal last Tuesday in a ceremony at Columbia University. The medal is the good-guy award for engineers, honoring individuals who tirelessly apply their technical knowledge to humanitarian projects.

Kalam was the president of India from 2002 to 2007, but is still referred to as the "people's president." He earned the moniker in large part by devoting himself to programs that extend medical technologies to rural and low-income areas of India. His work reaches out to those people who are often the last in line to experience the benefits of modern health care.

One of his greatest areas of impact has been in telemedicine. In 2005, Kamal launched a facility in his birthplace of Tamil Nadu that links medical colleges in the region to specialists all over the country. The program has enabled doctors to hold video conferences with patients in remote areas of India.

Kamal also founded the Society of Biomedical Technology, which uses defense technology to design medical devices. The program has had success especially in developing coronary stents and ophthalmic lasers.

You can read more about his achievements here.

And you can go here to read his acceptance speech. Both are pretty inspiring.

Familiar Refrain in Nanotechnology and Food: More Research is Needed

A hearing was held earlier this week at the UK House of Lords (not to be confused with the House of Commons) to bring together leading experts to discuss and report on the potential risks of nanopatrticles in food.

The main interest I had in this particular meeting was that a video was made of the entire proceedings.

The meeting brought four experts, including Professor Ken Donaldson from the University of Edinburgh and Dr Qasim Chaudhry from the Food and Environment Research Agency, before the Select Committee on Nanotechnologies in Food in order to present evidence on the risk or safety of nanotechnologies in food, or lack thereof.

The experts seemed to utter the same refrain repeatedly, one with which we should accustom ourselves to for the foreseeable future: more research is needed.

Of course, the research that was lacking was sometimes in the areas that some of the experts were doing their research, such as how nanoparticles interact with the body while in the digestive system. But I donâ''t really mind these self-serving calls for more research (as long as it is in their field of research) just as long we can shorten the time we have to hear â''more research is needed.â''

I just appreciate hearing some honest admittance of ignorance on the risk of nanoparticles in food to the hysterical knee-jerk reactions of those who have confused their dislike for corporations with some perceived threat from nanotechnologies in food or anything else.

Letâ''s just keep doing the science.

Nanotechnology and STD Treatment

The news services have been buzzing over reports that nanomaterials could be used in the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) like HIV.

A team of Yale University researchers have been able to get short-interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules, which the body uses to produce viral suppressing proteins, to where they are needed to combat a viral infection.

The trick has been to attach the siRNA molecules to a biodegradable polymer, known as polylactic-co-glycolic acid (PLGA), that acts as the transportation for the siRNA so it reaches the site of the infection.

Needless to say this all pretty early-stage research having only advanced to cell cultures and not to mice tests as of yet. But the results have been impressive with the transport mechanism not only reaching the intended target but remaining in the tissue to continue fighting the infection for up to 14 days.

Standardized Chargers for Cell Phonesâ¿¿All Good, All Green


I first met the folks at Green Plug at the Demo conference early last year. They had designed a universal charger that could work for all consumer electronics devices, eliminating the need to carry multiple chargers on the road or fill multiple power outlets with charging devices at home. The Green Plug charger offered energy savingsâ''because it could detect when a device was done charging and shut down. The secretâ''it talks to devices to find out their voltage and power requirements. The obstacle to successâ''the devices have to talk back, that is, consumer electronics manufacturers have to build Green Plugâ''s software into the devices. â''Good luck with that,â'' I thought, even though I saw it as a great idea and wished them success.

Well, Green Plug is indeed having some luck with that. Last week the company announced that it has convinced 17 wireless operators and mobile phone handset makers, under the auspices of the worldwide GSM Association, to build Green Plug compatibility into their devices by 2012. That means chargers will be interchangeable among manufacturers and work with future handsets. Which means, for me, could mean leaving three chargers at home when packing my family up for our next vacation.


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