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Science's Tiny, Big Unknown

Nanotechnology may revolutionize our lives. The first generation of engineered products has reached consumers, and with them come hard questions about safety.

June 01, 2006|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

Magic Nano was billed as a miraculous solution for household drudgery, able to repel dirt and moisture from bathroom surfaces through the wonders of nanotechnology.

Instead, the spray-on ceramic sealant quickly has become an emblem of the growing global fears over incorporating artificial particles tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair into such everyday products as golf balls, sunscreen and clothing.

Three days after Magic Nano went on sale in Europe in March, it was pulled from store shelves because at least 110 customers reported symptoms including racking coughs, chest pain and difficulty breathing.

"When I started to feel dizzy and nauseous, I got scared," said Carola Sennmann, a 37-year-old hairdresser in the German city of Goettingen, who felt flu-like symptoms within 30 minutes of spraying Magic Nano in her shower.

When she began to gasp for breath, she was rushed to the emergency room and suffered a sleepless, fevered night before the symptoms subsided. Doctors were baffled. Sennmann, though, had her own diagnosis: "I blame it on nanotechnology."

Last week, German regulators released tests that showed Magic Nano contained no nanoparticles. The product was designed to deposit an oil- and-water-repellent nano-thin film composed of silicon dioxide, but lab tests have yet to verify that property.

Experts still don't know what caused the illnesses in a case that highlights the murky definitions and poorly understood risks in one of the fastest-growing segments of science and technology.

"So the speculation begins," said Andrew Maynard, chief scientist of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "This is the great danger -- you're going to have a response against nanotech as a whole."

Simply understanding what nanotechnology is can be daunting for most people. The scientists and engineers immersed in it face a greater challenge: calculating the immediate and long-term risks of tinkering with the chemical and biological building blocks of matter to construct particles so small they can pass freely through the walls of individual cells.

Nanotechnology involves the manufacture or manipulation of particles or structures that are 1 to 100 nanometers -- billionths of a meter -- in at least one dimension. A human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide.

Such tiny particles can be made by breaking down larger blocks with ultra-fine grinders, controlled electrical explosions or lasers that blast apart raw materials. Chemical reactions can grow nanosized crystals, and metals can be vaporized to form nanomaterials when cooled.

Nanoparticles take on new chemical, electrical and physical properties that lead to "lighter, stronger, smarter, cheaper, cleaner and more precise" products, nanotechnology pioneer Ralph C. Merkle wrote in a seminal 1997 article.

Future Prospects

Some scientists believe that within a few decades nanotechnology will produce limitless, pollution-free energy and supercomputers the size of a grain of salt. It will transform deserts into lush gardens with cheaply desalinated sea water, they say, and neutralize noxious wastes by disassembling dangerous molecules into safe, reusable components.

"Nanotechnology has the potential to create revolutionary change across multiple, key areas of human endeavor," according to trade group NanoBusiness Alliance. "To maintain its global economic lead and to keep the U.S. homeland secure, we must win the nanotech race."

Today's uses are more mundane.

The minute specks already are in hundreds of products, such as spill-proof garments, cosmetics that claim to cure cellulite and health foods. Irving, Texas-based RBC Life Sciences Inc. sells a weight-loss chocolate drink that features "NanoClusters" that are 100,000 times smaller than a grain of sand, which it said "carry nutrition into your cells." Although smaller, the nanoparticles consist of the same substance as sand -- silica.

Carbon nanotubes, far lighter than steel yet 50 times as strong, toughen tennis rackets and may one day be used to build aircraft.

Lux Research Inc. in New York projects a $2.6-trillion global market for nanotechnology-enabled products by 2014, or about 15% of that year's projected manufacturing output. In 2005, more than $9.6 billion was spent worldwide on nanotech R&D, about half of that by government and half by the industry.

Yet alterations in the chemistry of everyday life can have unpredictable consequences, experts said. New, engineered nanomaterials have variable sizes, shapes and coatings that affect their properties in so far poorly understood ways, said Nigel Walker, who heads the nanotech safety program of the National Institutes of Health.

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