It has the power to shrink everyday objects to the molecular level. It will allow scientists to create miniature robot surgeons that will cruise our blood vessels like microscopic submarines, repairing our cells and organs.
Such is the promise of nano-technology–at least, as espoused in science-fiction films and novels.
But the reality of the emerging technology, which many scientists and industry leaders say will radically alter society and the economy, is more complex.
Nanotechnology is a field of molecular-scale engineering of functional systems that encompasses physics, biology, and chemistry. Rather than working with engines, bridges, or very small robots, scientists focus on structures with novel properties that are smaller than 100 nanometres. Put into context, an eyelash is about 100,000 nanometres wide; one nanometre is the length of 10 hydrogen atoms.
"Nanotechnology is the technology of the very small," said Alan Guest, executive director of Nanotech BC, a government-funded group that's promoted the technology since 2006. "But it's more than that.”¦There are all kinds of emergent properties that occur at the nanoscale."
In an interview at his downtown Vancouver office, Guest explained how these new properties include changes in strength, reactivity, and conductivity. As an example, he described a lump of gold. At its normal size, gold is, well, gold: it's yellow, a metal, and resistant to corrosion. However, in a kind of reverse alchemy, when examined down at the 10-nanometre size, solid gold changes into a red powder–its emergent properties include a change in both structure and colour.
Once understood, these nanoscale properties can be applied to commercial products like foods and packaging. Scientists can manipulate them to, for example, repel bacteria, deliver nutrients more effectively, or create new ingredients.
"The field of applied nanotechnology is expanding extremely rapidly," Paul Takhistov, an associate professor of food engineering at Rutgers University, New Jersey, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. "When people first started talking about food nanotechnology three or four years ago, it was like sci-fi. Now all the major food companies are actively investing in nanotechnology-related projects."
The U.K.–based nanotechnology research and consulting group Cientifica Ltd. predicts that the impact on the food industry will be huge: a $5.8-billion market by 2012. The group estimates that some 400 food companies, including heavyweights like Kraft Foods Global Inc., H.J. Heinz Co., and Unilever, are already conducting research.
William Yan, chief of Health Canada's microbiology evaluation division in the food directorate, recently conducted an international survey of food nanotechnology that revealed a large number of products on the horizon. During a phone interview, Yan noted that food additives and packaging, along with research that improves flavour and nutritional content, are main areas of focus.
"Health Canada is keeping a close eye on research and activities," Yan said from his office in Ottawa. "In the last few years, the food side has been developing quite quickly."
Here in Vancouver, nanotechnology is a growing industry, according to an "asset map" released by Nanotech BC and the B.C. Ministry of Economic Development on June 18. Entitled Nanotechnology in British Columbia: 2007 Research and Industry Survey, the report found more than 90 B.C. senior researchers and 400 students involved in nanotechnology research, with research spending exceeding $154 million between 2002 and 2006.
B.C.'s three major universities–UBC, UVic, and SFU–all have resources devoted to nanotechnology research, although little of it focuses on food. Reached by phone, chemistry professor Vance Williams, who works at SFU's 4D Labs, explained that although some of his colleagues' research into nanosensors and drug-delivery systems could be applied to foods, that area isn't a focus due to limited resources that place a higher priority on health-care and sustainable-energy issues.
Williams said he has confidence in the regulatory structures in place to oversee nanotechnology research. He said examples of nanoscale technology, though not labelled as such, stretch back to AD 300. Roman-manufactured gold nanoparticles made the famous Lycurgus cup change from red to green, depending on a viewer's perspective.
"A common misconception [about nanotechnology] is that it's something new–it's not," Williams said. "[Chemists] have always been looking at things at the nanoscale," he said.
However, observers worldwide are still urging caution in the industry. If the dream of molecular manufacturing and "nanofactories" comes true, as many scientists believe it will, there could be numerous social, economic, and even existential risks. For Nanotech BC, the range of challenges is broad enough to refer to them with an acronym, NE3LS, which stands for environmental, ethical, economic, and legal and social issues.
The ETC Group is an Ottawa-based nongovernmental organization that monitors socioeconomic and technological trends. In its November 2004 report Down on the Farm: The Impact of Nano-Scale Technologies on Food and Agriculture, the group highlighted challenges that include everything from environmental threats from nano-sized pesticides to socioeconomic concerns over the technology's effect on local farmers.
So how to assuage these concerns? Many people would say a strong program of government regulation. However, ETC's 2004 report found that "no government has developed a regulatory regime that addresses the nanoscale or the societal impacts of the invisibly small". South of the border, that situation remains, with one exception. In a phone interview, ETC's Montreal-based research-program manager, Jim Thomas, noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency looked at the case of nanosilver, which is used for its antibacterial properties in products like washing machines and clothing.
"That's the first time there's been specific mention of the regulatory issue," Thomas said. "There's no political will to regulate. Government wants to see the industry grow as much as possible."
The scientific community has also raised concerns, with many researchers speaking out about possible risks. Rutgers University's Takhistov said that although he hasn't seen any scientific evidence that nanomaterials are more toxic than other materials, regulation is necessary.
In order to close these regulatory gaps, Nanotech BC's Guest said an "orderly process" is under way. The International Standards Organization (ISO) has formed three nanotechnology working groups, the first of which is led by Clive Willis, vice-president of research for Canada's National Research Council. Known as ISO/TC 229, these groups include representatives from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada, and Environment Canada.
Once the ISO's first group has defined a generally agreed-upon nanotechnology vocabulary, which Guest estimated will take a number of years, they will begin outlining specific regulations with regards to safety, international trade, and other aspects.
"Once the ISO standards are in place, individual countries will build regulations that are harmonized," Guest said.
ETC's Thomas disagreed, saying that in the U.S., Europe, and possibly Canada, national governments are moving in the other direction: to a voluntary-regulatory scheme. Essentially, Thomas predicted, a corporation will choose to tell the government whether or not it is using the technology–a solution that he said is "totally inadequate". Thomas also said that he's noticed companies shifting away from promoting their use of nanotechnology. Faced with growing public concern, he noted, they're now changing the way they classify their products.
"The problem with nanotechnology is that, by definition, it's invisible in a way that suits companies that want to make it visible for investors and invisible for consumers," he said.
Lori Sheremeta is a lawyer and expert in nanotechnology regulation, based at the University of Alberta, who's been involved with Canada's National Institute for Nanotechnology since 2002. Speaking with the Straight from Edmonton, she said that although the Canadian government has been working at the international and national levels toward regulation, new regulations aren't yet in place.
"A lot of people say there's a need to regulate now," she said. "I think the reality is that the state doesn't want to regulate in absence of defined reason to do so.”¦In Canada, we don't want the government overly restrictive."
Sheremeta explained that when regulating novel drugs and foods in Canada that include applications of nanotechnology, safety testing must take into consideration whether a nanoscale substance has an adverse or novel effect on human health and/or the environment.
"It's not that we don't have laws–we do for standard testing," she said. "All products for the consumer market have a strict [regulatory] framework." She noted that manufacturers can be held liable if they sell unsafe products.
"[But there's an] inability to be certain whether or not we're assessing risk appropriately."
At the moment, there is concern about whether or not standard testing methods appropriately assess risks attached to some of nanotechnology's novel features. When asked if new testing methods have been developed to address the new properties of nanotechnology–one wouldn't test for radioactivity using a microscope–Yan said that at present there is no such development. Health Canada uses strict existing regulations; as scientific discoveries are made, that growing knowledge base is consulted when developing testing methods.
Interim guidelines could be small comfort to shoppers who unknowingly slather on sunscreen or cook with canola oil that are products of nanotechnology. When asked if there are any requirements in place to label products that contain nano-sized ingredients, ETC's Thomas said "absolutely not".
"No one is doing that," he said. "Companies [with products] that contain nano-size materials have now dropped nano [from labels]."
Yan explained that in Canada there is no requirement to label products as containing products of nanotechnology. Health Canada is very clear: such products only require labelling when issues of health or safety are at stake or if the product changes the nutritional value or structure of food.
Guest referred to present circumstances as a "Wild West situation", noting that some companies are already putting on the market products that contain nanotechnology.
The labelling issue is complex, according to Sheremeta, because regulators must first determine whether or not, and in what circumstances, the size of product ingredients is relevant to human health issues. She questioned the importance of telling consumers that a product ingredient is 100 micrometres or 90 nanometres if the different sizes don't exhibit any different properties.
The ETC Group has called for companies, government, and researchers to provide more public information about nanotechnology. Its 2004 report stated that the lack of public dialogue is damaging the potential of food nanotechnology, and that discussions have been limited to "scientists, investors, and industry executives". When asked if the public is still in the dark, Thomas said that is "very much the case".
Though she disagrees with many points made by the ETC Group, Sheremeta concurred with the organization's emphasis on public dialogue. She said everyone–stakeholders, consumers, industry, and academia–needs a better sense of the issues involved in the debate.
"In Canada, [the issue is] largely off the radar screen," Sheremeta said. "The Canadian government has been slow to put in place a structure on nanotechnology research [and] do it in a way to inform debate."
For now, interested parties must seek out their own sources of information–few of which will involve robot submarines battling blood cells.