- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

Last week, President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, an important measure which should serve as a needed stimulus for that nascent field full of potential.

Nanotechnology deals with the study and manipulation of atoms and molecules — at about the scale of 1/100,000th of the diameter of a human hair. As its name implies, it is not a field of pure research, but rather an interdisciplinary area with many possible applications.

The act, which passed both chambers of Congress earlier this year, authorizes $3.7 billion in spending on nanotechnology over the next four years. It should focus the ad hoc research spending of various federal agencies — including NASA, the EPA and the Department of Defense — through the establishment of a new National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. It also authorizes the study of nanotechnology’s potentially negative social impacts, although experts say that a potential bubble in the stock market poses a far greater danger than the self-directed swarms of nanoparticles from Michael Crichton’s novel, “Prey.”

While the National Science Foundation predicts that nanotechnology could have a $1 trillion impact on the economy in about a decade, it will take time and focused research dollars for applications to be fully developed. Investors believe nanotechnology is now where the computer industry was in the 1960s. As Richard Russell, the Associate Director for Technology in the Office of Science and Technology Policy told the House Science Committee earlier this year, the nanotechnology initiative is “a critical link between high-risk, novel research concepts and new technologies that can be developed by industry.”

Nanomaterials are already being used in sunscreens and tennis rackets. The oil industry saves an estimated $12 billion each year by using molecular sieves known as zeolites to extract gasoline from crude oil. The premiere issue of the industry publication Nanotech Briefs, which came out in October, has stories on everything from the role carbon nanotubes could have in servicing NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to the improved performance nanoparticles could give to rechargeable batteries.

In the future, nanotechnology coupled to biotechnology could produce a variety of beneficial products, from better sensors for agents of bioterrorism to custom-built medicines for fighting cancers. Nano-manufacturing processes could reduce waste from industrial production, and nanomaterials could be used to make power systems highly efficient.

Mr. Bush’s signature should also ensure that the United States does not fall behind other nations that have also seen the potential in nanotechnology. Last year, Japan spent about $1 billion on nanotechnology, and China is reportedly spending between $300 and $400 million on it each year. Members of the European Union could spend a total of $3.3 billion on nanotechnology research and development between now and 2006.

The nation has needed this federal catalyst to fully develop the breathtaking possibilities of nanotechnology. The bill signed by Mr. Bush should serve well in widening the way.

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