Nanotechnology is the science of the very small. A nanometer is 80 million times smaller than an apple and 1/80,000 the width of a human hair. Through nanotechnology, materials such as carbon, silver, gold, and polymers can be manipulated at the atomic and molecular levels to assume different physical properties.

Manufactured nanomaterials are being used in more than 800 products, such as stain repellent pants, cosmetics, food, and solar panels, all of which are currently available on the market. It is estimated that nanotechnology will be incorporated into $2.6 trillion worth of manufactured goods by 2015. Silicon Valley is emerging as the center for the development of nanotechnology startup companies, yet, there are few regulations in place to ensure the health and safety of workers and communities in Silicon Valley or around the world. Click to see which regulations are in place.

The situation today is strikingly similar to that of the electronics industry in the early 1980s, when new “clean” manufacturing processes resulted in widespread groundwater pollution throughout Santa Clara County. The responses of industry, government, and environmental agencies to that crisis were woefully inadequate, due to major information and technology gaps.

SVTC reports on a comparison between the nanotechnology of today and the electronics industry of the past in the 2008 white paper Regulating Emerging Technologies in Silicon Valley and Beyond.

Nanotechnology and the right to know

As part of SVTC’s strong belief in the community’s right to know, SVTC surveyed 129 Bay Area companies believed to import, manufacture or deal with man-made nanomaterials to determine their health and safety practices.

In December of 2008 SVTC released the survey findings which can be read here.

Nanotechnology, “clean tech” & electronics

Claims of cheaper and more efficient sources of clean energy and smaller and more powerful electronics have been one of the major selling points for nanotechnology.

The hope is that the application of carbon nanotubes in solar panels will increase panel efficiency and decrease cost. However, the use of these materials does not come without a cost. Some carbon nanotubes have been shown to possess asbestos- like characteristics that can lead to lung damage.

Not only do manufactured nanomaterials have the potential to damage health, but also the environment. Unfortunately, there has been little advancement in the recycling of electronic waste to effectively deal with chemicals such as lead and chromium; the incorporation of nanomaterials into electronics will make proper recycling even more challenging.

Related links
Nanotechnology in Electronics: The Risk to Human Health and the Environment
Regulating Emerging Technologies in Silicon Valley and Beyond

SVTC timeline of Semiconductor and Nanotech industries
Bay Area Nanotechnology Maps