Something new happened in January that got me thinking about something old.
The new? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration released a new fact sheet, titled Working Safety with Nanomaterials.
The old? Nanomaterials. How old? People have been safely putting them to work for millennia -- and nature's been at it since the beginning of time.
Let me explain. Let's start with the OSHA fact sheet. It's a simple, straightforward, common-sense tool, like the hundreds of other fact sheets OSHA offers on topics from flood clean-up to lab safety.
This one follows that longtime template, focusing on training and information, emergency planning and other sound precautions. Chances are, if you've been in the nanotech field any time at all, there's nothing unfamiliar there. There were certainly no surprises for me. I've been committed to working safely since I founded my company 26 years ago.
And that's what got me thinking. A 2-month-old safety document. A 26-year safety record. And then? It occurred to me that nanotechnology's health record can be traced back 4,500 years.
The ancient Egyptians put gold and silver utensils in their water vessels as an antibacterial. The artifacts have been found in tombs. Of course, the Egyptians didn't know nanotechnology was part of their water purification regimen. It's only now that we understand that nanoparticles of the precious metals formed naturally on the vessel walls from their macro-size components.
Of course, even the Egyptian's nanotechnology is "new and improved" when you consider that nature has been manufacturing nanomaterials since, well, the beginning of time. The ocean waves that beat rocks into sand create nanoscale versions of the elements, too. Volcanic eruptions produce nanomaterials. Butterfly wings have a water-repellant nanostructure, and gecko's feet have a sticky one.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Fast forward to today. How did nanotech get red-flagged with a "new and unknown" label after literally millennia on the planet? Quite simply, it's because we didn't have the technology to see objects at the nanoscale. We didn't know they existed. Out of sight meant out of mind.
It took till the 20th century to change all that. With the advent of the scanning electron microscope, we could see our world in 1,000,000x magnification. Biology got the first peek, zooming in on more organic and natural nanotech: bacteria, viruses, protein molecule clusters, and DNA.
It wasn't until the 1980s that chemists, physicists, and engineers started taking a closer look at the world. They could begin to identify, measure and characterize the unseen science that had been all around us forever -- in both natural and manmade forms. Fourth century glassware had nanoparticles in the glaze. Carbon nanotubes provided the hardness in thirteenth century swords.
At last, most recently, we made the giant leap of insight. We realized that if we could see, we could do. I founded Nanofilm to apply ultrathin film coatings to give surfaces new properties. Others began using nanotechnology to strengthen plastics, make waterproof surfaces, fight disease, improve the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals, shrink electronics.
That's a pretty impressive history of accomplishment -- not to mention health and environmental safety. Imagine the breakthroughs we can yet achieve -- responsibly. Even a cursory Google search of nano-news highlights positive health developments in cancer treatment, sepsis, arthritis, heart disease. Plus, there are environmental breakthroughs regularly in areas from carbon dioxide remediation to clean fuels.
Altogether, 15 federal agencies are committed to the advancement of nanotechnology, with plans to invest $1.8 billion in 2013. That includes the Departments of Energy and Defense, the USDA and NASA. And, quite naturally, the EPA.
What's it all mean? To me, it's clear. The future of nanotechnology is as bright as its track record. Transformative, practical, responsible. And that's good history worth repeating. Again. And again. And again.