Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2014 | News

Nano in Your Life

By Shelbi Thomas

Nanotechnology isn't only confined to research laboratories. More than 1,500 consumer products made stronger, lighter, or otherwise more effective by the addition of nanomaterials are currently on the market—from sunscreens to computer chips, housing insulation to auto parts.

Silver nanoparticles provide antibacterial properties to keep socks smelling fresh and plastic-wrapped food from spoiling, while carbon nanotubes add strength to tennis rackets and bicycles. Among numerous other applications, manufacturers also use nanotechnology in air purifiers, dental ceramics, and scratch-resistant eyeglasses.

In fact, nanotechnology is big business, bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars in sales and employing some 150,000 U.S. workers. In response to this fast-emerging field, the U.S. Patent Office has registered more than 13,000 patents that include the word "nano," and, in 2000, the federal government launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative—now funded to the tune of $1.8 billion a year—to help scientists from various disciplines share and accelerate their research in this fast-growing field.


Though the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies maintains a list of products that contain nanoparticles, the commercial use of nanotechnology is largely unregulated. At the UI's Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Institute (NNI), two programs—Nano Tox and Nano Enviro—focus on some of the issues that have made nanoscience controversial.

As nanotechnology is so new, critics fear that its miniscule particles present an enormous, undetermined threat to human health and the environment. Some experts say that nanoparticles could potentially penetrate through human skin, into organs, and even through the barrier that normally protects the brain from toxins in the bloodstream. And while some applications can help remediate contaminated soil and provide cheaper, more-efficient energy sources, little is known about nanoparticles' long-term effects on water supplies, aquatic life, and air quality.

This past November, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued new recommendations for controlling worker exposures to engineered nanomaterials during their manufacture and industrial use. Meanwhile, research continues at the UI to ensure that nanoscience safely lives up to its promise.

As NNI co-director Vicki Grassian says, "Ultimately, any technology will only be of real value and use to society if the technology is nontoxic or free of a major environmental concern."