Nanotechnology need not be the new asbestos. It has the potential to be the new penicillin: a panacea for polluting industries and a shot in the arm for U.S. technology leadership.
A new report issued today by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, an initiative backed by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts, calls for a strong marriage between nanotechnology and green science to build a sustainable society. And it calls on the federal government to do the officiating.
"Nanotechnology could help us make every atom count -- for example, by allowing us to create ultra-efficient catalysts, detoxify wastes, assemble useful molecular machines, and efficiently convert sunlight into energy," the report says. "It could potentially contribute to long-term sustainability for future generations, as more green products and green manufacturing processes replace the old harmful and wasteful ones."
The report, Green Nanotechnology: It's Easier Than You Think, summarizes several green nanotech successes and makes policy recommendations to protect the $8.3 billion the U.S. already has invested since the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative was launched in 2001.
Green nanotechnology already is under development in labs across the country. A new, environmentally friendly method of layering semiconductor materials -- selective deposition -- is being developed by Farhang Shadman, director of the National Science Foundation's Semiconductor Research Corp., and his research group at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
University of Oregon chemist James E. Hutchison is working on a semiconductor manufacturing process, a green way to pattern metal at nanoscale called biomolecular nanolithography.
Yi Li, a chemist with the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is developing a nanomaterial that could replace the toxic tin-lead solder used to wire electronics products.
As the many examples cited in the report suggest, green technology isn't some fringe movement to "Think Different"; it "could be the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century," as venture capitalist John Doerr put it.
Whether that opportunity pays off, the report says, depends largely on policy decisions made by the federal government. Citing recommendations by experts and interested parties, the report says, "There is an urgent need for data on nanomaterials in order to resolve environmental, health, and safety questions."