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Nanotechnology: What Is It and Why Do Law Librarians Need to Know About It?

By Scott Russell, Published on November 30, 2008

Research into the science and use of nanotechnology has existed for a few decades, but only recently has the potential of this technology become more widely known. Despite the advances in the field, a poll released last month indicated that half the U.S. population has never heard of nanotechnology. What, exactly, is nanotechnology? The Foresight Nanotech Institute defines nanotechnology as an emerging technology in which the structure of matter is controlled at the nanometer scale (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). It is at this level that unique properties are observed in some materials. At the nanoscale level objects act differently than they do at the large scale level. Certain materials are more effective at conducting heat, or are stronger and more durable, or reflect light better. Such technology is already in use in a variety of everyday products. Additionally, recent articles about the use of nanotechnology vary from using carbon nanotubes, to advances in the fight against cancer, and even a space elevator.

The potential uses for nanotechnology are vast, yet there are questions about possible risks from exposure to nano particles. While some laboratory rats have acquired fibrosis from inhaling dust from carbon nanotubes, no study has been done on humans regarding the effects of this technology. Other studies have questioned whether or not the exposure to these nanotubes is similar to the exposure to asbestos fibers. Also, no definitive tests have yet been established that would accurately predict the level of exposure needed to even cause harm in people.

Future studies linking nanotechnology to any adverse issue could lead to litigation for a firm client. It is here where a basic knowledge of what nanotechnology is, or at least a knowledge of where to go to get information on it, could prove helpful for law librarians. Concerns about exposure could lead to various tort claims, as well as cases involving consumer fraud. From an employment law perspective, workplace exposure or disability claims could be filed. Intellectual property disputes have already been filed regarding licensing issues on certain nanotechnologies both in the U.S. and U.K. It is too soon to say if this emerging technology will lead to any mass litigation, but it is clear that use and exposure to nano materials will grow in the coming years.

The sites listed in following offer information on nanotechnology. Many of these sites are updated on a regular, or fairly regular basis.

Government, Non-Profit and Research Sites:

National Nanotechnology Initiative - Established in 2001 by the federal government to coordinate research and responsible development of nanotechnology. They also have a brochure for the general public that provides an understanding of the science titled, Nanotechnology: Big Things from a Tiny World.

The aforementioned Foresight Nanotech Institute was founded in 1986 to educate the public about what nanotech is, including both benefits and risks of such technology. The Institute is now more focused advancing beneficial nanotech programs. It also has a blog, Nanodot, that follows news, press releases, and conferences in the field.

NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health). The primary federal agency in charge of research and guidance regarding work health and safety implications for nanotechnology. The NIOSH site offers links to topics and current research, as well as news and educational materials. NIOSH has developed a Nanoparticle Information Library, but as of this publication, it is not yet online.

The International Alliance for NanoEHS Harmonization was formed earlier this year by groups of scientists from the United States, Europe, and Japan. The goal of these scientists and toxicologists is to develop protocols for standardized toxicological testing of nanomaterials at the cell and animal level.

FDA nanotechnology page. This page lays out the FDA's understanding of nanotechnology, and provides a link to a July 2007 report that provides more detailed information on the administration’s role in regulating nanotechnology.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a statement in August 2008 stating that it is not yet ready to effectively test or comment on potential consumer hazards. The release also stated that the commission is working with public and private entities to foster better communications and data to eventually effectively regulate products containing nanomaterials.

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies - Website run by a joint effort of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Of particular interest might be the section devoted to consumer products that currently use nanoscale materials.

Center for Nano Scale Science and Technology Part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their principle objective is to provide accurate measurement methods and tools to enable nanotechnology development.

International Association of Nanotechnology - The IANT is a non-profit professional association that seeks to foster research as well as business development by providing advanced educational opportunities and training. They emphasize building a framework for clean, safe bio-tech.

Environmental Defense Fund. This site focuses on the importance getting nanotechnology right. The EDF focuses on risk research, regulatory policy, and corporate compliance. They also have a blog called Nanotechnology Notes.

Blogs and News Sites

Nanowerk - A portal to info about the science of nanotech. The site has news content (separated into general news and business news coverage). It also has access to reports, databases, reviews, and commentary on all things nanotech.

Nanotechwire.com. Site devoted to news coverage of various issues surrounding nanotechnology. Can view entries by topic as well (chemicals, investments, litigation, research, etc.). Frequently updated.

Nanotechnology.com is a subsidiary of The Nanotech Company LLC. The site provides news and financial information on nanotech companies, including nanotech stocks and a listing of companies involved in nanotechnology. The site has a blog called blog l nano. Nanotechnology Now offers press releases, news and investor information.

Legal Blogs

At this time there are only a few blawgs devoted to the topic (these sites are not always updated on a daily basis), and are as follows:

Nanotechnology Law Blog. Published by the Washington D.C. based law firm of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C. It follows legal and regulatory developments in the field.

Nanotechnology Law Report. Blog run by the nanotechnology practice group at the law firm of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP. Provides information and commentary on the latest legal issues surrounding nanotech.

nanoRev. The blog for the site Nanotechnology Law & Business. The emphasis of the blog is on financing and investing. The site also offers a journal for attorneys, investors, and others involved in small scale technologies. Full-text access to the journal is for subscribers, but abstracts of articles are available for free on the site.

NanoTech Lex. Run by a Pittsburgh based attorney. No posts since March 5, 2008.

Nanotechnology Law. This site has not been updated in over a year. It was a blog run by a university student from Germany. No posts since September 17, 2007.