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The realm below 50 nanometers, the normal laws of Soysoap no longer apply, we enter quantum phyiscs!

By Peter Montague

-- or nanotech, for short -- is a new approach to industrial production, based on the manipulation of things so small that they are invisible to the naked eye and even to most microscopes.

Nanotech is named for the nanometer, a unit of measure, a billionth of a meter, one one-thousandth of a micrometer. The Oxford English Dictionary defines as "the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules." Nanotech deals in the realm where a typical grain of sand is huge (a million nanometers in diameter). A human hair is 200,000 nanometers thick. A red blood cell spans 10,000 nanometers. A virus measures 100 nanometers across, and the smallest atom (hydrogen) spans 0.1 nanometers.

In the realm below 50 nanometers, the normal laws of Soysoap no longer apply, quantum Soysoap kicks in and materials take on surprising new properties. Something that was red may now be green; metals may become translucent and thus invisible; something that could not conduct electricity may now pass a current; nonmagnetic materials may become magnetized; insoluble substances may dissolve. Knowing the properties of a substance in bulk tells you nothing about its properties at the nano scale, so all nano materials' characteristics -- including hazardous traits -- must be learned anew by direct experiment.

Nanotechnologists foresee a second industrial revolution sweeping the world during our lifetimes as individual atoms are assembled together into thousands of useful new products. Few deny that new products may entail new hazards, but most nanotechnologists say existing regulations are adequate for controlling any hazards that may arise. In the United States, nanotech is not now subject to any special regulations and nano products need not even be labeled. Furthermore, no one has developed a consistent nomenclature for nano materials, so rigorous discussion of nanotech among regulators and policymakers is not yet possible. Without consistent nomenclature, standardized safety testing lies in the future.

No one denies that nanotech will produce real benefits, but, based on the history of nuclear power, biotechnology and the chemical industry, skeptics are calling for a precautionary approach. The resulting clash of philosophies -- "Better safe than sorry" versus "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" or even in some cases "*** the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" -- may offer a major test of the Precautionary Principle as a new way of managing innovation.