Top Technology Stories of 2003

Friday, January 02, 2004
RELATED TAGS: NANOTECHNOLOGY, GADGETS

Nanoparticles Pop Up Everywhere

The idea of manipulating molecules to create microscopic machines or materials with unusual new properties has been around for years, but 2003 saw a flurry of breakthroughs. IBM developed a technique for making carbon nanotubes emit light, paving the way for new fiber optics; Harvard scientists figured out how to deposit tiny wires on glass or plastic, opening the door for the development of supercheap computers; and at the University of Central Florida, neuroscientist Beverly Rzigalinski discovered a nanomolecular fountain of youth effect: When Rzigalinski applied cerium oxide nanoparticles to rat neurons in a petri dish, the particles seemed to strip out the free radicals that make tissues age and kept the neurons alive and functioning up to six times their normal life span.

Meanwhile, nanomaterials are rapidly infiltrating everyday life. Wilson, the sporting goods manufacturer, has nanoengineered layers of clay to double the playing life of its Double Core tennis balls; L’Oréal uses nanoscale particles and capsules in their cosmetic creams that allow replenishing ingredients to penetrate deep into the skin; and the Australian company Advanced Powder Technology has created Zinclear, a translucent zinc oxide sunblock composed of nanoparticles as small as the tiniest known viruses. “You’ve got all the protection but with no white lines on your nose and face,” says Hugh Dawkins, head of product development for the firm.

But are nanoparticles safe? This year scientists began to question openly whether nanotech firms are careering toward an asbestoslike fiasco. Nanoparticles are known to behave in strange and unpredictable ways partly because at the nanoscale, quantum physics can take over, and the Newtonian physics of everyday life becomes less dominant. “Particles of that size can go anywhere they please,” says Pat Mooney, executive director of the technology policy group ETC, which released a report warning about nanotoxins this spring. “They pass the entire immune system. They can pass the blood-brain barrier; they can go into the spinal cord.”

Recently, NASA scientist Chiu-Wing Lam spritzed carbon nanotubes into the lungs of mice and found that they caused granulomas, nodules that are symptoms of toxicity. At Rice University in Houston, researchers found that nanosize buckyballs—60 carbon atoms bound together in the shape of a soccer ball—can bond to pollutants such as naphthalene, slowing the pace at which the pollutants are naturally neutralized and greatly expanding the distance over which environmental toxins can spread.

Although more than $1 billion was spent on nanotechnology research this year, less than 1 percent went to investigating potential toxic effects. “We need to get out ahead of it all, so it’s not like Freon or dry-cleaning chemicals,” says Rice environmental engineer Mason Tomson.

Clive Thompson

Cell Phones Rival Alcohol as Driving Hazard

You may be coordinated and have a hands-free phone in your car, but recent studies at the University of Utah suggest that it isn’t the dialing or the arm waving that makes driving while talking on a cell phone dangerous. It’s the yakking itself—or more precisely, the yakking to someone who isn’t present. David Strayer, a Utah psychologist, says, “Your driving performance while talking on a cell phone is impaired at levels comparable to, or worse than, driving with a blood alcohol level of .08,” which is the legal limit in most states.

Using a driver-training simulator, Strayer and a team of Utah researchers compared the attention levels and response times of 110 motorists in various situations. In dense traffic, cell phone users were about 20 percent slower to respond to sudden hazards than other drivers, and they were about twice as likely to rear-end a braking car in front of them. “Cell phone drivers are extracting less than 50 percent of the visual information that non-cell drivers are getting,” says Strayer. “Looking and seeing are not one and the same.” By contrast, the researchers found that listening to the radio or conversing with passengers is not as hazardous. “When a dangerous situation arises, the driver and passenger put their conversation on pause,” Strayer says.

Whether talking with a passenger or someone on a cell phone, however, people are less able to recall the details of a conversation carried on while driving, adds psychologist Frank Drews, a coauthor of the study. “So it might not be good for your economic health to discuss investment strategies with your broker while either of you is driving.”

Michael W. Robbins

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