Most people in the world know exactly how long a kilometer is, how large a liter is, how much a kilogram weighs, and how warm 25C is. That's because almost all countries in the world have adopted a standard called the metric system - since the 1960s the International System of Units has been the internationally recognized standard system for measurements (only three countries have not adopted this standard: Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States - the latter maybe because the metric system was invented by the French...). The need for standardization also exists in various fields of nanotechnology in order to support commercialization and market development, provide a basis for procurement, and support appropriate legislation/regulation. When it comes to nanotechnology, numerous standard setting organizations around the world are active in defining nanotechnology standards, although no one standard has achieved dominance yet.
The European Union currently spends about 740 million Euros (roughly $1.2 billion) annually in public funding on nanotechnology research. This is almost on par with the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) budget of $1.28 billion (2007). Almost 40% of public EU nanotechnology funding takes place in Germany and it is estimated that about half of the European companies active in nanotechnology are based in Germany, making the country the clear nanotechnology leader in Europe. Germany's strengths include a well structured research and development infrastructure and a high level of research in the various subfields of nanotechnology. The industrial base for utilizing the results of this research is also in place. About 700 companies are currently involved in the development, application, and sales and marketing of nanotechnological products. What sets public nanotechnology policy in Germany and other European countries apart from the U.S. is a more deliberate attempt to create, and evolve over time, an integrated approach in the development of nanotechnology research, trying to link sustainability questions and technology development.
The food industry is excited about the potential of nanotechnology. Food companies are very much involved in exploring and implementing nanotechnology applications in food processing, packaging and even growing - but you don't hear about it anymore. At least not from the companies.
Large industrial food companies, no stranger to big and expensive media campaigns, have buried the subject of nanotechnology in their public relations graveyard. Take Kraft Foods for example. While it took the industry's nanotechnology lead when it established the Nanotek Consortium in 2000, it has since pulled back completely on the PR front. The Nanotek Consortium even was renamed the 'Interdisciplinary Network of Emerging Science and Technologies' (INEST), is now sponsored by Altria, and its single webpage makes no mention of food at all. Doing our regular check on the websites of large food companies we again found not a single reference to 'nanotechnology' or even 'nano'. The same is true for large food industry associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association (GMA/FPA), which represents the world's leading food, beverage and consumer products companies. Faced with a complete nanotechnology communications blackout from the manufacturers, it is left to activist groups like Friends of the Earth to frame the discussion. These groups are trying to figure out what the food industry is up to and if there might be any risks involved that we should know about.
An Interagency Working Group on Manufacturing Research and Development established by the National Science and Technology Council has identified three technology areas as key research and development priorities for future manufacturing: Manufacturing for Hydrogen Technologies; Nanomanufacturing; and Intelligent and Integrated Manufacturing. The Working Group summarized their findings in a new report titled 'Manufacturing the Future.' Although this report is specific to the U.S., most of its general conclusions and recommendations apply to most other industrialized nations and their industrial nanotechnology efforts as well. Nanotechnology is viewed throughout the world as a critical driver of future economic growth and as a means to addressing some of humanity's most vexing challenges. Because of its broad range of prospective uses, nanotechnology has the potential to impact virtually every industry, from aerospace and energy to healthcare and agriculture. Nanomanufacturing integrates science and engineering knowledge and develops new processes and systems to assure quality nanomaterials, to control the assembly of molecular-scale elements, and to predictably incorporate nanoscale elements into nano-, micro-, and macroscale products utilizing new design methods and tools. Efforts in this area are directed toward enabling the mass production of reliable and affordable nanoscale materials, structures, devices, and systems. Nanomanufacturing includes the integration of ultra-miniaturized top-down processes and evolving bottom-up or self-assembly processes.
Notwithstanding the mixed news (to put it mildly) that individual investors have been getting from their nanotechnology stock portfolios, industry as a whole is pressing ahead with incorporating nanotechnologies in their products and processes. Unlike many other areas of science, nanosciences are capable of influencing a wide sweep of industrial and medical processes, from cleaner energy applications, to smart materials and revolutionary medical applications. It is increasingly difficult to know which products use nanotechnology or incorporate nanomaterials; nanotechnology consumer product directories give an idea where nanomaterials are used but are increasingly useless in helping to understand the full extent of nanotechnologies penetrating industrial manufacturing processes. Some consumer companies embrace 'nano' wholeheartedly and advertise their 'revolutionary' face creams, tennis rackets and car waxes; some, after increased scrutiny, have become very quiet about their nanotechnology activities (especially the large cosmetics and food companies); and some even change their company name to something that doesn't include 'nano' ('cleantech' or 'greentech' has become the new nanotech). Combine this technological shift that is taking place in industries across the board with the still existing lack of conclusive answers about the toxicity of nanomaterials, and you get a worrisome mix of industry pushing ahead unconstrained, a regulatory environment where key constituencies are ill prepared and underfunded to address the issues with the speed required, and public opinion that covers the whole range from activists calling for a complete moratorium on all things nano to snake-oil salesmen who promise nanotechnology stock tips that will make you a gazillionaire. Oh, and apparently now you can also add to this mix certain religious types in the U.S. who find nanotechnology is morally not acceptable.
A number of researchers and organizations such as the Meridian Institute in the US believe that nanotechnology could contribute to some or all of the UN Millennium Development Goals, aiming for poverty reduction by 2015. Applications of nanotechnology that could benefit those living in poverty include diagnostics and therapies for infectious diseases, water purification and desalination, sustainable energy production, and environmental monitoring and remediation. Nanotechnology could also contribute to food security by boosting the yields of food crops, and packaging materials coated with nanoparticles that will allow food to be stored longer. So far, nanotechnology has been an area of 'technology push', with substantial investments in both generic research and technology development, in the absence of clear market demand. Worldwide, private investments in research have recently overtaken public funding, but the potential advantages of nanotechnology-based products compared to other alternatives are not yet clear. Also, there is a growing global debate on the ethical, legal and social aspects of nanotechnology, in particular the potential risks to human health and the environment posed by engineered nanomaterials. Nanotechnology is still mainly a solution looking for problems to solve, including sustainable development issues.
The list of great monuments and frescoes destroyed or seriously damaged by negligence or criminal action is dramatically increasing, and the biggest culprit is air pollution. Pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are the most serious causes of degradation in carbonate stone, which in the form of marble, limestone and similar materials comprises some of the most important monuments and artifacts in the world. The main damage to monuments is that the stonework becomes sulphated through the transformation of calcium carbonate to calcium sulphate owing to the presence of sulphur dioxide. Two forms of deterioration then take place: the constitution of a black film in areas sheltered from the rain, and elsewhere the crumbling of the interior of the stone. For instance, UNESCO estimates that the surface eaten away annually in a cultural heritage site such as Venice represents 6 per cent of marble and stone monuments and 5 per cent of frescoes. The problem is not only what causes the damage but also how repairs are done. Quite often, the experts in charge of restoration work - architects, restorers, renovators - conduct their work without previous scientific studies of the damaged monument. Specifically the consolidation of decayed stone in historical buildings is a common intervention that can cause irreparable damage to the monument. Although commercial products, such as alkoxysilanes that are commonly used to consolidate stone, present unquestionable advantages they also present certain disadvantages totally ignored by the experts in charge of their application. Scientists in Spain are committed to the development of new nanotechnology materials specifically suited to stone-based historical structures. Their objective has been the development of a new nanomaterial which forms a crack-free gel in the pores of the treated stone.
When the U.S. enacted its 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act in 2003 it was clearly understood that the impact of nanotechnologies on all aspects of society would be deeply transformational. As the National Nanotechnology Initiative was set up, its goals were not only defined as 'maintaining a world-class research and development program aimed at realizing the full potential of nanotechnology' but also to 'facilitate transfer of new technologies into products for economic growth, jobs, and other public benefit'. The first part regarding world-class R&D is happening. The second part, converting the research and development results into economic growth and jobs, is nowhere to be seen yet.