Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer
Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer
May 20, 2008
John F. Sargent
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer
Nanoscale science, engineering and technology — commonly referred to
collectively as nanotechnology — is believed by many to offer extraordinary
economic and societal benefits. Congress has demonstrated continuing support for
nanotechnology and has directed its attention primarily to three topics that may
affect the realization of this hoped for potential: federal research and development
(R&D) in nanotechnology; U.S. competitiveness; and environmental, health, and
safety (EHS) concerns. This report provides an overview of these topics — which
are discussed in more detail in current and upcoming CRS reports — and two others:
nanomanufacturing and public understanding of and attitudes toward nanotechnology.
The development of this emerging field has been fostered by significant and
sustained public investments in nanotechnology R&D. Nanotechnology R&D is
directed toward the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1
to 100 nanometers. At this size, the properties of matter can differ in fundamental
and potentially useful ways from the properties of individual atoms and molecules
and of bulk matter. Since the launch of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)
in 2000, Congress has appropriated approximately $8.4 billion for nanotechnology
R&D. More than 60 nations have established similar programs. In 2006 alone, total
global public R&D investments reached an estimated $6.4 billion, complemented by
an estimated private sector investment of $6.0 billion. Data on economic outputs that
are used to assess competitiveness in mature technologies and industries, such as
revenues and market share, are not available for assessing nanotechnology.
Alternatively, data on inputs (e.g., R&D expenditures) and non-financial outputs (e.g.
scientific papers, patents) may provide insight into the current U.S. position and serve
as bellwethers of future competitiveness. By these criteria, the United States appears
to be the overall global leader in nanotechnology, though some believe the U.S. lead
may not be as large as it has been for previous emerging technologies.
Some research has raised concerns about the safety of nanoscale materials.
There is general agreement that more information on EHS implications is needed to
protect the public and the environment; to assess and manage risks; and to create a
regulatory environment that fosters prudent investment in nanotechnology-related
innovation. Nanomanufacturing — the bridge between nanoscience and
nanotechnology products — may require the development of new technologies, tools,
instruments, measurement science, and standards to enable safe, effective, and
affordable commercial-scale production of nanotechnology products. Public
understanding and attitudes may also affect the environment for R&D, regulation,
and market acceptance of products incorporating nanotechnology.
In 2003, Congress enacted the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and
Development Act providing a legislative foundation for some of the activities of the
NNI, addressing concerns, establishing programs, assigning agency responsibilities,
and setting authorization levels. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate
remain actively engaged in the NNI, holding hearings in 2007 and 2008 related to
possible amendments to, and reauthorization of, the act. Policy issues related to the
NNI may be addressed in this process or through separate legislation.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative................................5
Environmental, Health, and Safety Implications......................9
Public Attitudes and Understanding..............................12
List of Tables
Table 1. NNI Funding, by Agency....................................6
Nanotechnology: A Policy Primer
Congress continues to demonstrate interest in and support for nanotechnology
due to what many believe is its extraordinary potential for delivering economic
growth, high-wage jobs, and other societal benefits to the nation. To date, the
Science Committee in the House and Senate Committee on Commerce have directed
their attention primarily to three topics that may affect the United States’ realization
of this hoped for potential: federal research and development (R&D) investments
under the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI); U.S. international
competitiveness; and environmental, health, and safety (EHS) concerns. This report
provides a brief overview of these topics — which are discussed in greater detail in1
current and upcoming CRS reports — and two other subjects of interest to Congress:
nanomanufacturing and public attitudes toward, and understanding of,
Nanotechnology research and development is directed toward the understanding
and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers. At this size, the
physical, chemical, and biological properties of materials can differ in fundamental
and potentially useful ways from the properties of individual atoms and molecules,
on the one hand, or bulk matter, on the other hand.
In 2000, President Clinton launched the NNI to coordinate federal R&D efforts
and promote U.S. competitiveness in nanotechnology. Congress first funded the NNI
in FY2001 and has provided increased appropriations for nanotechnology R&D in
each subsequent year. In 2003, Congress enacted the 21st Century Nanotechnology
Research and Development Act (P.L. 108-153). The act provided a statutory
foundation for the NNI, established programs, assigned agency responsibilities,
authorized funding levels, and initiated research to address key issues.
Federal R&D investments are focused on advancing understanding of
fundamental nanoscale phenomena and on developing nanomaterials, nanoscale
devices and systems, instrumentation, standards, measurement science, and the tools
and processes needed for nanomanufacturing. NNI appropriations also fund the
construction and operation of major research facilities and the acquisition of
instrumentation. Finally, the NNI supports research directed at identifying and
1 For additional information on these issues, see CRS Report RL34401, The National
Nanotechnology Initiative: Overview, Reauthorization, and Appropriations Issues, and CRS
Report RL34493, Nanotechnology and U.S. Competitiveness, both by John F. Sargent, and
CRS Report RL34332, Engineered Nanoscale Materials and Derivative Products:
Regulatory Challenges, by Linda-Jo Schierow. An upcoming CRS report will address
nanotechnology environmental, health, and safety issues.
managing potential environmental, health, and safety impacts of nanotechnology, as
well as its ethical, legal and societal implications.
Most current applications of nanotechnology are evolutionary in nature, offering
incremental improvements in existing products and generally modest economic and
societal benefits. For example, nanotechnology is being used: in automobile
bumpers, cargo beds, and step-assists to reduce weight, increase resistance to dents
and scratches, and eliminate rust; in clothes to increase stain- and wrinkle-resistance;
and in sporting goods, such as baseball bats and golf clubs, to improve performance.
In the longer term, nanotechnology may deliver revolutionary advances with
profound economic and societal implications. Potential applications discussed by the
technology’s proponents involve various degrees of speculation and varying time-
frames. The examples below suggest areas where such possible revolutionary
advances may emerge, and early research and development efforts that may provide
insights into how such advances may be achieved.
!Detection and treatment technologies for cancer and other
deadly diseases. Current nanotechnology disease detection efforts
include the development of sensors that can identify biomarkers,
such as altered genes, that may provide an early indicator of cancer.
One approach uses carbon nanotubes and nanowires to identify the
unique molecular signals of cancer biomarkers. Another approach
uses nanoscale cantilevers — resembling a row of diving boards —
treated with molecules that bind only with cancer biomarkers. When
these molecules bind, the additional weight bends the cantilevers
indicating the presence and concentration of these biomarkers.
Nanotechnology holds promise for showing the presence, location,
and/or contours of cancer, cardiovascular disease, or neurological
disease. Current R&D efforts employ metallic, magnetic, and
polymeric nanoparticles with strong imaging characteristics attached
to an antibody or other agent that binds selectively with targeted
cells. The imaging results can be used to guide surgical procedures
and to monitor the effectiveness of non-surgical therapies in killing
the disease or slowing its growth. Nanotechnology may also offer
new cancer treatment approaches. For example, nanoshells with a
core of silica and an outer metallic shell can be engineered to
concentrate at cancer lesion sites. Once at the sites, a harmless
energy source (such as near-infrared light) can be used to cause the
nanoshells to heat, killing the cancer cells they are attached to.
Another treatment approach targets delivery of tiny amounts of a
chemotherapy drug to cancer cells. In this approach the drug is
encapsulated inside a nanoshell that is engineered to bind with an
antigen on the cancer cell. Once bound, the nanoshell dissolves,
releasing the chemotherapy drug killing the cancer cell. Such a
targeted delivery approach could reduce the amount of
chemotherapy drug needed to kill the cancer cells, reducing the side
effects of chemotherapy.2
!Clean, inexpensive, renewable power through energy creation,
storage, and transmission technologies. Nanoscale semiconductor
catalysts and additives show promise for improving the production
of hydrogen from water using sunlight. The optical properties of
these nanoscale catalysts allow the process to use a wider spectrum
of sunlight. Similarly, nanostructured photovoltaic devices (e.g. solar
panels) may improve the efficiency of converting sunlight into
electricity by using a wider spectrum of sunlight. Improved hydrogen
storage, a key challenge in fuel cell applications, may be achieved by
tapping the chemical properties and large surface area of certain
nanostructured materials. In addition, carbon nanotube fibers have
the potential for reducing energy transmission losses from
approximately 7% (using copper wires) to 6% (using carbon
nanotube fibers), an equivalent annual energy savings in the United
States of 24 million barrels of oil.3
!Universal access to clean water. Nanotechnology water
desalination and filtration systems may offer affordable, scalable,
and portable water filtration systems. Filters employing nanoscale
pores work by allowing water molecules to pass through, but prevent
larger molecules, such as salt ions and other impurities (e.g. bacteria,
viruses, heavy metals, and organic material), from doing so. Some
nanoscale filtration systems also employ a matrix of polymers and
nanoparticles that serve to attract water molecules to the filter and to
!High-density memory devices. A variety of nanotechnology
applications may hold the potential for improving the density of
memory storage. For example, IBM has demonstrated the potential
to create high-density memory devices (with an estimated storage
capacity of 1 terabyte per square inch) by storing information
mechanically using thermal-mechanical nanoscale probes to punch
nanoscale indentations into a thin plastic film. The probes can be
used to read and write data in parallel.5
2 National Cancer Institute website. [http://nano.cancer.gov/resource_center/tech_
3 Nanoscience Research for Energy Needs, Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and
Technology Subcommittee, National Science and Technology Council, The White House,
4 Abraham, M. “Today’s Seawater is Tomorrow’s Drinking Water,” University of California
at Los Angeles, November 6, 2006
5 Vettiger, P. “The ‘millipede’ - nanotechnology entering data storage,” IEEE Transactions
on Nanotechnology, March 2002. Vol 1. Issue 1. pp 29-55.
!Higher crop yield and improved nutrition. Higher crop yield
might be achieved using nanoscale sensors that detect the presence
of a virus or disease-infecting particle. Early, location-specific
detection may allow for rapid and targeted treatment of affected6
areas, increasing yield by preventing losses. Nanotechnology also
offers the potential for improved nutrition. Some companies are
exploring the development of nanocapsules that release nutrients
targeted at specific parts of the body at specific times.7
!Self-healing materials. Nanotechnology may offer approaches that
enable materials to “self-heal” by incorporating, for example,
nanocontainers of a repair substance (e.g., an epoxy) throughout the
material. When a crack or corrosion reaches a nanocontainer, the
nanocontainer could be designed to open and release its repair
material to fill the gap and seal the crack.8
!Sensors that can warn of minute levels of toxins and pathogens
in air, soil or water. Microfluidic and nanocantilever sensors
(discussed earlier) may be engineered to detect specific pathogens
(e.g. bacteria, virus) or toxins (e.g., sarin gas, hydrogen cyanide) by
detecting their unique molecular signals or through selective binding
with an engineered nanoparticle.
!Environmental remediation of contaminated sites. The high
surface-to-volume ratio, high reactivity, and small size of some
nanoscale particles (e.g. nanoscale iron) may offer more effective
and less costly solutions to environmental contamination. By
injecting engineered nanoparticles into the ground, these
characteristics can be employed to enable the particles to move more
easily through a contaminated site and bond more readily with
Nanotechnology is also expected to make substantial contributions to federal
missions such as national defense, homeland security, and space exploration and
U.S. private sector nanotechnology R&D is now estimated to be twice that of
public funding. In general, the private sector’s efforts are focused on translating
fundamental knowledge and prototypes into commercial products; developing new
applications incorporating nanoscale materials; and developing technologies,
methods, and systems for commercial-scale manufacturing.
6 Nanoscale Science and Engineering for Agriculture and Food Systems, draft report on the
National Planning Workshop, submitted to the Cooperative State Research, Education, and
Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, July 2003.
7 Wolfe, Josh. “Safer and Guilt-Free Nano Foods,” Forbes.com, August 10, 2005.
8 Berger, Michael. “Nanomaterial heal thyself,” Nanowerk Spotlight, June 13, 2007.
9 EPA website. [http://es.epa.gov/ncer/nano/research/nano_remediation.html]
Many other nations and firms around the world are also making substantial
investments in nanotechnology to reap its potential benefits. With so much
potentially at stake, some members of Congress have expressed interest and concerns
about the U.S. competitive position in nanotechnology R&D and success in
translating R&D results to commercial products. This has led to an increased focus
on potential barriers to commercialization efforts, including the readiness of
technologies, systems, and processes for large-scale nanotechnology manufacturing;
potential environmental, health, and safety (EHS) effects of nanoscale materials;
public understanding and attitudes toward nanotechnology; and other related issues.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have held hearings in 2008 on
amending the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. This
report provides a macro-level view of federal R&D investments, U.S.
competitiveness in nanotechnology, and EHS-related issues.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative
President Clinton launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000,
establishing a multi-agency program to coordinate and expand federal efforts to
advance the state of nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, and to position
the United States to lead the world in its development and commercialization. The
NNI is comprised of 13 federal agencies that receive appropriations to conduct and
fund nanotechnology R&D and 12 other federal agencies with responsibilities for
health, safety, and environmental regulation; trade; education; training; intellectual
property; international relations; and other areas that might affect nanotechnology.
EPA both conducts R&D and has regulatory responsibilities.
Congress has played a central role in the NNI, providing appropriations for the
conduct of nanotechnology R&D (discussed below), establishing programs, and
creating a legislative foundation for some of the activities of the NNI through
enactment of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of
2003. The act also authorized appropriations FY2005 through FY2008 for five NNI
agencies — the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE),
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Commerce
(DOC) National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA).
Structure. The NNI is coordinated within the White House through the
National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Nanoscale Science, Engineering,
and Technology (NSET) subcommittee. The NSET subcommittee is comprised of
representatives from 25 federal agencies, White House Office of Science and
Technology Policy (OSTP) and Office of Management and Budget.10 The NSET
10 NSET subcommittee members include Bureau of Industry and Security, DOC; Consumer
Product Safety Commission; Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service,
Department of Agriculture (USDA); Department of Defense (DOD); Department of
Education; DOE; Department of Homeland Security; Department of Justice; Department of
Labor; Department of State; Department of Transportation; Department of the Treasury;
subcommittee has established several working groups, including the National
Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI), National Innovation and Liaison
with Industry (NILI), Global Issues in Nanotechnology (GIN), Nanomanufacturing,
and Nanotechnology Public Engagement and Communications (NPEC) working
groups. The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) provides
administrative and technical support to the NSET subcommittee.
Funding. Funding for the NNI is provided through appropriations to each of
the NNI-participating agencies. The NNI has no centralized funding. Overall NNI
funding is calculated by aggregating the nanotechnology-related expenditures of each11
NNI agency. Funding remains concentrated in the original six NNI agencies which
account for 98.3% of NNI funding in FY2008. The NNI funds fundamental and
applied nanotechnology R&D, multidisciplinary centers of excellence, and key
research infrastructure. It also supports efforts to address societal implications of
nanotechnology, including ethical, legal, EHS, and workforce issues.
For FY2008, Congress appropriated an estimated $1.491 billion for
nanotechnology R&D, more than triple the $464 million federal investment in 2001.
In total, Congress appropriated approximately $8.4 billion for the NNI since FY2001.
President Bush has requested $1.527 billion for nanotechnology R&D in FY2009, a
2.3% increase above the estimated FY2008 funding level. The chronology of NNI
funding is detailed in Table 1.
Table 1. NNI Funding, by Agency
(in millions of current dollars)
FY FY FY FY FY FY FY FY FY
2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
AgencyActualActualActualActual Actual Actual ActualEstimateRequest
DOD 125 224 220 291 352 424 450 487 431
NSF 150 204 221 256 335 360 389 389 397
DOE 88 89 134 202 208 231 236 251 311
NASA 22 35 36 47 45 50 20 18 19
EPA 5655758 1015
TO TA Lb 464 697 760 989 1,200 1,351 1,425 1,491 1,527
EPA; Food and Drug Administration; Forest Service, USDA; Intelligence Technology
Innovation Center; International Trade Commission; NASA; National Institutes of Health
(NIH), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS); National Institute for
Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (DHHS);
NIST, DOC; NSF; Nuclear Regulatory Commission; U.S. Geological Survey, Department
of the Interior; and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, DOC.
11 The original six agencies were the NSF, DOD, DOE, NIST, NASA, and NIH.
Source: NNI website. [http://www.nano.gov/html/about/funding.html]
a. According to NSTC, the Department of Defense budgets for FY2006, FY2007, and FY2008
include Congressionally directed funding outside the NNI plan. The extent to which such funding
is included or not included in reporting of funding in earlier fiscal years is uncertain.
b. Numbers may not add due to rounding of agency budget figures.
Nanotechnology is largely still in its infancy. Accordingly, measures such as
revenues, market share, and global trade statistics — which are often used to assess
and track U.S. competitiveness in other more mature technologies and industries —
are not available for assessing the relative U.S. position internationally in
nanotechnology. To date, the federal government does not collect data on
nanotechnology-related revenues, trade or employment, nor is comparable
international government data available. Nevertheless, many experts believe that the
United States is the global leader in nanotechnology. However, some of these
experts believe that in contrast to many previous emerging technologies — such as
semiconductors, satellites, software, and biotechnology — the U.S. lead is narrower,
and the investment level, scientific and industrial infrastructure, technical
capabilities, and science and engineering workforces of other nations are more
substantial than in the past.
In the absence of comprehensive and reliable economic output data (e.g.,
revenues, market share, trade), indicators such as inputs (e.g., public and private
research investments) and non-financial outputs (e.g., scientific papers, patents) have
been used to gauge a nation’s competitive position in emerging technologies. By
these measures (discussed below), the United States appears to lead the world,
generally, in nanotechnology. However, R&D investments, scientific papers, and
patents may not provide reliable indicators of the United States’ current or future
competitive position. Scientific and technological leadership may not necessarily
result in commercial leadership or national competitiveness for a variety of reasons:
!Basic research in nanotechnology may not translate into viable
!Basic research is generally available to all competitors.
!U.S.-based companies may conduct production and other work
outside of the United States.
!U.S.-educated foreign students may return home to conduct research
and create new businesses.
!U.S. companies with leading-edge nanotechnology capabilities
and/or intellectual property may be acquired by foreign competitors.
!U.S. policies or other factors may prohibit nanotechnology
commercialization, make it unaffordable, or make it less attractive
than foreign alternatives.
!Aggregate national data may be misleading as countries may
establish global leadership in niche areas of nantoechnology.
With these caveats, the following section reviews input and non-economic
output measures as indicators of the U.S. competitive position in nanotechnology.
Global Funding. The United States has led, and continues to lead, all nations
in known public investments in nanotechnology R&D, though the estimated U.S.
share of global public investments has fallen as other nations have established similar
programs and increased funding. Using a currency exchange rate comparison, the
United States ranks ahead of all other nations, with federal and state investments of
$1.78 billion in 2006 (27.8% of global public R&D investments), followed by Japan
($975 million, 15.2%) and Germany ($563 million, 8.8%). When national12
investments are adjusted using purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rates, the
United States remains the world leader, but China ranked second in public13
nanotechnology spending in 2005.
Private investments in nanotechnology R&D come from two primary sources,
corporations and venture capital investors. On a PPP comparison basis, the United
States led the world in 2006 in corporate R&D investments in nanotechnology with
an estimated $1.9 billion investment, followed by Japan with $1.7 billion. In total,
U.S. and Japan-based companies accounted for nearly three-fourths of global
corporate investment in nanotechnology R&D in 2006. China ranks fifth in corporate14
investment, accounting for approximately 3% of global private R&D investments.
Lux Research, an emerging technologies consulting firm, estimates that global
nanotechnology venture capital investment in 2007 was $702 million, of which $632
million went to U.S.-based firms.15
Scientific Papers. The quantity of peer-reviewed scientific papers is
considered by some to be an indicator of a nation’s scientific leadership. A study by
the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2005 reported that the U.S. share was
a world-leading 24%, but that this represented a decline from approximately 40% in
the early 1990s, concluding:
Taken as a whole these data confirm that the strength and depth of the American
science base points to the United States being the dominant player in
nanotechnology for some time to come, while the United States also faces16
significant and increasing international competition.
One measure of the importance of a scientific paper is the number of times it is
cited in other papers. An analysis by Evaluametrics, Ltd. reports that nanotechnology
papers attributed to the United States are much more frequently cited than those
attributed to China, the nations of the European Union (EU27), and the rest of the
12 Purchasing power parity exchange rates seek to equalize the purchasing power of
currencies in different countries for a given basket of goods and/or services.
13 Profiting from International Nanotechnology, Lux Research, Inc., December 2006.
14 Profiting from International Nanotechnology, Lux Research, Inc., December 2006.
15 Personal communication between CRS and Lux Research, April 28, 2008.
16 Zucker, L.G. and M.R. Darby. “Socio-Economic Impact of Nanoscale Science: Initial
Results and Nanobank,” National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2005.
world as a whole. This held true overall and separately in each of the four disciplines
examined (biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics). The U.S. lead was
particularly pronounced in biology. China fell below the world average number of
citations in each discipline, as well as overall. The EU27 performed near the world
average in engineering and physics, and somewhat higher in chemistry.
Patents. Patent counts — assessments of how many patents are issued to
individuals or institutions of a particular country — are frequently used to assess
technological competitiveness. By this measure, the U.S. competitive position
appears to be strong. A 2007 U.S. Patent and Trademark Office analysis of patents
in the United States and in other nations stated that U.S.-origin inventors and
!the most nanotechnology-related U.S. patents by a wide margin;
!the most nanotechnology-related patent publications globally, but by
a narrower margin (followed closely by Japan); and
!the most nanotechnology-related inventions that have patent
publications in three or more countries, 31.7%, followed by Japan17
(26.9%), Germany (11.3%), Korea (6.6%), and France (3.6%).
Environmental, Health, and Safety Implications
Key policy issues associated with U.S. competitiveness in nanotechnology
include environmental, health, and safety (EHS) concerns, nanomanufacturing, and
public understanding and attitudes. EHS concerns include both direct consequences
for health, safety, and the environment, and how uncertainty about EHS implications
and potential regulatory responses might affect U.S. competitiveness. One such effect
might be the discouragement of investment in nanotechnology due to the possibility
of regulations that might bar products from the market, impose high regulatory
compliance costs, or result in product liability claims and clean-up costs.
Some of the unique properties of nanoscale materials — e.g., small size, high
surface area-to-volume ratio — have given rise to concerns about their potential
implications for health, safety, and the environment. While nanoscale particles occur
naturally and as incidental by-products of other human activities (e.g., soot),18 EHS
concerns have been focused primarily on nanoscale materials that are intentionally
engineered and produced.
Much of the public dialogue about risks associated with nanotechnology has
focused on carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and other fullerenes (molecules formed entirely
of carbon atoms in the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube) since they are
currently being manufactured and are among the most promising nanomaterials.
These concerns have been amplified by some research on the effects of CNTs on
17 Eloshway, Charles. “Nanotechnology Related Issues at the U.S. Patent and Trademark
Office,” Workshop on Intellectual Property Rights in Nanotechnology: Lessons from
Experiences Worldwide, Brussels, Belgium, April 2007.
18 Some naturally occurring nanoparticles cause adverse health effects. Studies on the effects
of naturally occurring particles are numerous and inform R&D on engineered nanoparticles.
animals, and on animal and human cells. For example, researchers have reported that
carbon nanotubes inhaled by mice can cause lung tissue damage;19 that buckyballs
(spherical fullerines) caused brain damage in fish;20 and that buckyballs can
accumulate within cells and potentially cause DNA damage.21 On the other hand,
some research has found CNTs and fullerenes to be non-toxic. In addition, work at
Rice University’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology
conducted in 2005 found cell toxicity of CNTs to be low and that toxicity can be
reduced further through simple chemical changes to the CNT’s surface.22
Among the potential EHS benefits of nanotechnology are applications that may
reduce energy consumption, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions; remediate
environmental damage; cure, manage, or prevent deadly diseases; and offer new
materials that protect against impacts, self-repair to prevent catastrophic failure, or
change in ways that provide protection and medical aid to soldiers on the battlefield.
Potential EHS risks of nanoscale particles in humans and animals depend in part
on their potential to accumulate, especially in vital organs such as the lungs and
brain, that might harm or kill, and diffusion in the environment that might harm
ecosystems. For example, several products on the market today contain nanoscale
silver, an effective antibacterial agent. Some scientists have raised concerns that the
dispersion of nanoscale silver in the environment could kill microbes that are vital
Like nanoscale silver, other nanoscale particles might produce both positive and
negative effects. For example, some nanoscale particles have the potential to
penetrate the blood-brain barrier, a structure that protects the brain from harmful
substances in the blood. Currently, the barrier hinders the delivery of therapeutic
agents to the brain.23 The characteristics of some nanoscale materials may allow
pharmaceuticals to be developed to purposefully and beneficially cross the blood-
brain barrier and deliver medicine directly to the brain to treat, for example, a brain
tumor. Alternatively, other nanoscale particles might unintentionally pass through
this barrier and harm humans and animals.
There is widespread uncertainty about the potential EHS implications of
nanotechnology. A survey of business leaders in the field of nanotechnology
indicated that nearly two-thirds believe that “the risks to the public, the workforce,
19 Lam, C.; James, J.T.; McCluskey, R.; and Hunter, R. “Pulmonary toxicity of single-wall
carbon nanotubes in mice 7 and 90 days after intratracheal instillation,” Toxicological
Sciences, September 2003. Vol 77. No. 1. pp 126-134.
20 Oberdörster, Eva. “Manufactured Nanomaterials (Fullerenes, C60) Induce Oxidative
Stress in the Brain of Juvenile Largemouth Bass,” Environmental Health Perspectives, July
21 “Understanding Potential Toxic Effects of Carbon-Based Nanomaterials,” Nanotech
News, National Cancer Institute Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, July 10, 2006.
22 “Modifications render carbon nanotubes nontoxic,” press release, Rice University,
23 “Blood-Brain Barrier Breached by New Therapeutic Strategy,”press release, National
Institutes of Health, June 2007.
and the environment due to exposure to nano particles are ‘not known,’” and 97%
believe that it is very or somewhat important for the government to address potential
health effects and environmental risks that may be associated with nanotechnology.24
Many stakeholders believe that concerns about potential detrimental effects of
nanoscale materials and products on health, safety, and the environment — both real
and perceived — must be addressed for a variety of reasons, including:
!protecting and improving human health, safety, and the
!enabling accurate and efficient risk assessments, risk management,
and cost-benefit trade-offs;
!creating a predictable, stable, and efficient regulatory environment
that fosters investment in nanotechnology-related innovation;
!ensuring public confidence in the safety of nanotechnology research,
engineering, manufacturing, and use;
!preventing the negative consequences of a problem in one
application area of nanotechnology from harming the use of
nanotechnology in other applications due to public fears, political
interventions, or an overly-broad regulatory response; and
!ensuring that society can enjoy the widespread economic and
societal benefits that nanotechnology may offer.
Policy issues associated with EHS impacts of nanotechnology include
magnitude, timing, foci, and management of the federal investment in EHS research;
adequacy of the current regulatory structures to protect public health and the
environment; and cooperation with other nations engaged in nanotechnology R&D
to ensure all are doing so in a responsible manner.
Securing the economic benefits and societal promise of nanotechnology requires
the ability to translate knowledge of nanoscience into market-ready nanotechnology
products. Nanomanufacturing is the bridge connecting nanoscience and
nanotechnology products. Although some nanotechnology products have already
entered the market, these materials and devices have tended to require only
incremental changes in manufacturing processes. Generally, they are produced in a
laboratory environment in limited quantities with a high-degree of labor intensity,
high variability, and high costs. To make their way into safe, reliable, effective, and
affordable commercial-scale production in a factory environment may require the
development of new and unique technologies, tools, instruments, measurement
science, and standards for nanomanufacturing.
24 “Survey of U.S. Nanotechnology Executives,” Small Times Magazine and the Center for
Economic and Civic Opinion at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Fall 2006.
Public Attitudes and Understanding
What the American people know about nanotechnology and the attitudes that
they have toward it may affect the environment for research and development
(especially support for public R&D funding), regulation, market acceptance of
products incorporating nanotechnology, and, perhaps, the ability of nanotechnology
to weather a negative event such as an accident or spill.
In 2007, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Project on
Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) reported results of a nationwide poll of adults
that found more than 42% had “heard nothing at all” about nanotechnology, while
only 6% said they had “heard a lot.” In addition, more than half of those surveyed
felt they could not assess the relative value of nanotechnology’s risks and benefits.
Among those most likely to believe that benefits outweigh risks were those earning
more than $75,000 per year, men, people who had previously heard “some” or “a lot”
about nanotechnology, and those between the ages of 35 and 64. Alternatively,
among those most likely to believe that the risks of nanotechnology outweigh
benefits include people earning $30,000 or less; those with a high school diploma or
less; women; racial and ethnic minorities; and those between the ages of 18 and 34
or over age 65.25
The PEN survey found a strong positive correlation between familiarity with
and awareness of nanotechnology and perceptions that benefits will outweigh risks.
However, the survey data also indicate that communicating with the public about
nanotechnology in the absence of clear, definitive answers to EHS questions could
create a higher level of uncertainty, discomfort, and opposition.
Congress expressed its belief in the importance of public engagement in the 21st
Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 (15 U.S.C. §§7501
et seq.). The act calls for public input and outreach to be integrated into the NNI’s
efforts. The NNI has sought to foster public understanding through a variety of
mechanisms, including written products, speaking engagements, a web-based
information portal (nano.gov), informal education, and efforts to establish dialogues
with key stakeholders and the general public. In addition, the NSET subcommittee
has established a Nanotechnology Public Engagement and Communications working
group to develop approaches by which the NNI can communicate more effectively
with the public.
25 “Awareness of and Attitudes Toward Nanotechnology and Federal Regulatory Agencies:
A Report of Findings,” survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., for the Project
on Emerging Nanotechnologies, September 2007.