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Fall 2006 Vol. 6 No. 3

Table of Contents

Sam Jiang in the Materials Science Division at the Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Nanoscale Materials prepares nanostructured magnetic samples for X-ray diffraction studies, image courtesy Argonne National Laboratory The Scale
of Things

A Look at
the National Nanotechnology Initiative

By manipulating matter at the scale of one-billionth of a meter, scientists and engineers are creating new materials and devices that could detect and treat disease at the earliest stages, decrease pollution at industrial sites, vastly improve the performance of electronics, and much more. Such applications are making the science and engineering of the very small -- or nanotechnology -- the subject of great attention from industry, academia, and government agencies.

To realize nanotechnology's full potential and manage federally funded research in this area, the U.S. government created in 2000 the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). One of the greatest achievements of the initiative so far has been successfully coordinating the participation of over 20 agencies, as well as the creation of five new DOE centers dedicated to nanoscale R&D and an NSF-developed partnership of facilities across the U.S., says a new, congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council.

NNI's contributions to scientific advances in nanotechnology make a strong case for continuing federal support of the initiative, the report concludes. Recent research discoveries include the use of nanoparticles to deliver cancer drugs directly to tumors and the creation of a nanoscale powder made from iron that cleans up contaminated groundwater and soil. But the United States is not the only country making headway in nanotechnology. Funding in Japan and the European Union for research and development in this field is each comparable to that of the United States, and the U.S. percentage of relevant published papers worldwide is declining. To maintain and enhance the nation's competitive position in this area, the federal government should sustain investments that balance applied, shorter-term efforts with longer-term R&D programs.

It's too early to make firm projections of the economic impact of nanotechnology research, and without uniform or consistent tracking of agency investments in research, any assessment of their impact on the economy thus far would be limited, the report says. With better information, it could be possible, for example, to assess how investments contribute to technology transfer and commercial applications, and to better prioritize what research receives funds.

Nanomaterials have unusual and useful properties, but the effects of their unique attributes on human health and the environment are unknown. Research to date has been inconclusive, although there is some evidence that these materials can be harmful to laboratory animals. More research is needed in this area, and a dialogue among scientists, policymakers, and the general public is encouraged on this topic, the report says.   -- Patrice Pages

A Matter of Size: Progress Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Committee to Review the National Nanotechnology Initiative, National Materials Advisory Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2006, approx. 176 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10223-5; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $41.50 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

James C. Williams, professor of materials science and engineering and Honda Chair, Ohio State University, Columbus, chaired the committee. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences