Language of Science Lags Behind Nanotech
"The problem is, how do you go about naming materials that are chemically and atomically identical to larger structures but clearly have a different activity level?" asked Kristen Kulinowski of the Rice nano center.
Of particular interest to regulators and toxicologists is emerging evidence that some substances that are normally biologically inert can cause worrisome reactions in the body when present as nanoparticles. Similarly, some substances that are normally safe in the environment seem to have the potential to be ecologically disruptive when dispersed as nano-size particles.
So while scientists generally expect that the vast majority of nanomaterials will prove safe, they also want a naming system that does the best job of predicting important traits, including biological effects. If the atomic coatings that scientists often attach to their nanomaterials are key to the material's effects on living cells, for example, then precise terms relating to those coatings will have to be adopted in the same way that Eskimos have many words for different kinds of snow. If a particle's size or the amount of surface area is key to its behavior, then terminology will have to focus on that trait.
In some cases, existing terms may suffice. In others, words may have to be invented, experts said.
Nanomaterials also pose a problem for classifiers because it can be difficult to nail down their precise structures -- a prerequisite to naming them. The problem is that the act of measuring or analyzing these substances can move a few atoms around, which in the case of nanoparticles can be a substantial fraction of what was there.
Colvin hopes to receive funding to begin a series of nano nomenclature meetings this August and expects it could take as long as two years to get a solid framework. These meetings will include biologists, environmental scientists and others, reflecting the many potential applications for nanoproducts.
In the end, experts said, nanotechnology will be a more precise science, if a little less fun -- a science in which, at least according to one proposed system, some old-fashioned buckeyballs may find themselves renamed (C
If that isn't progress, then what is?
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Titanium dioxide nanomolecules are used in sunscreen. Discussion of standardized terminology is just beginning.