Friday, May 21, 2010


Nanotechnology is a popular topic these days, but I was nonetheless surprised (and pleased) when the Georgia Tech Golden Isles Alumni Club selected me as the invited speaker for their spring meeting last week in Brunswick, Georgia.  Jane Stoner, who coordinates the clubs and speakers bureau of the GT Alumni Association, told me that despite there being several distinguished Tech faculty who speak about nanotechnology, the club was intrigued by my topic “Nanotechnology: What’s the Big Deal about Small Things?”  I used my presentation to illustrate the unique phenomena that occur at the nanoscale, their resulting commercial applications, and several Georgia Tech innovations.  I also explained the novel business model behind Tech’s Nanotechnology Research Center, highlighting the NRC as a valuable resource both for Tech and the outside academic and business communities.  I had many pleasant interactions with the more than 70 attendees during both the initial reception and after the question/answer session.  These Tech alumni are a very loyal group and great ambassadors for the institution.

The highlight of the evening for me was the opportunity to meet and speak with the outstanding high school students from the area who will be entering as Georgia Tech freshmen in the fall.  This group included some students from the 2010 graduating class of Glynn Academy, one of the oldest public schools in the country that has been in continuous operation since 1788.  I had extended conversations with Evan Weaver and Alexander Vakili, two students who are what you might call “scary smart.”  I was awed by their intelligence and poise, and impressed that at the age of 17 or 18 they are such motivated and self-directed learners.  Their questions about nanoscale science and engineering were astute and knowledgeable, and clearly this was a subject with which they were familiar and comfortable.

In addition, I had an opportunity to share some reminiscences of Frank Saffold who came to the meeting in Brunswick from St. Mary’s, Georgia.  Mr. Saffold, who graduated Tech in 1941 (EE), was honored as the senior alum at the event.  Nearing 90 years old, Mr. Saffold regaled me with tales of working on transformers for WWII aircraft shortly after his Tech graduation.  He also was involved in the early development of radar in the 1940s and 1950s.  What surprised and pleased me most, however, was when I glanced in his direction and observed that he was taking notes during my talk.  I don’t know if Frank Saffold will make contributions to the field of nanotechnology, but it was gratifying to meet some of the future scientists and engineers who most certainly will.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nanotechnology and Your Health

When making public presentations on nanotechnology applications and commercialization, I am often asked about regulatory issues, potential health effects, and environmental impacts of nanotechnology.  This topic was recently covered in the April 2010 session of the CDC’s Public Health Grand Rounds titled “Preventing Adverse Health Effects from Nanotechnology."  The Grand Rounds is a monthly seminar series devoted to education and discussion of public health issues, with highlights of current research and suggestions for future work.

This program is a good primer on the subject matter and includes input from NIH and academic researchers, including Georgia Tech’s Prof. Bill Hunt.  I was a bit surprised during the question/answer session when several physicians and public health professionals thanked the speakers for educating them, with the implication that they were not familiar with some of the basic information on nanotechnology.  I guess it is an occupational hazard (not one requiring regulations) that you tend to think others are familiar with your own field of study.

It was also a reminder for me that current commercial products with nanotechnology components, and the components themselves, are already covered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, albeit for “fine analogues”.  For example, carbon nanotubes are regulated as fine graphite, while the EPA’s rules about pesticides govern products containing nanosilver that claim antimicrobial properties.  As the video makes clear, this is a stop-gap approach, which does not effectively address the fact that the physical properties, environmental fate, and toxicology of nanomaterials can be quite different from their parent materials.  Various NIH centers, and many others within the National Nanotechnology Initiative, have devoted resources (limited as they may be) to studying environmental and health impacts.  In particular, I want to mention the GoodNanoGuide which is an international collaboration to develop best practices for occupational handling of nanoscale material.

Finally, I believe an important distinction was omitted during the discussion.  It is agreed that deleterious effects of nanotechnology could occur because some nanoparticles have the potential to interact negatively with cells and tissues within the human body when inhaled, ingested, or exposed directly to skin.  However, this is not the entirety of nanotechnology research and commercial efforts.  In fact, the majority of research at the NRC and within the facilities associated with the NNIN is based on top-down (as opposed to bottom-up) approaches for the creation of nanoscale enabled or enhanced electronic, optical, or mechanical devices.  Since the nanoscale components and materials are formed and contained within the fabricated object, with normal use such devices do not pose the same risks as particulate nanomaterials.