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Good things come in small packages, and that just might be the case with nanotechnology. Then again, it could all turn into a horror show.

By  Coletta Kemper

In Michael Crichton’s novel Prey, an experiment in the secluded Nevada desert goes terribly awry when micro-robots escape from the laboratory. These “nanoparticles” are intelligent, self-sustaining, self-reproducing and learn from experience. To make matters worse, they have been programmed to prey on human life, and efforts to kill them have failed.

Sci-fi? Well, yes, but not as far-fetched as you may think. The relatively new field of nanotechnology is booming along with its promise of curing cancer, producing stain-resistant clothes, eliminating pollution and growing new body parts. It is so new that the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters awarded the first prize for outstanding achievement in nanoscience in May.

With all its promise for revolutionizing our world in the next few decades, the insurance industry is looking at the inherent risks that may come along with this brave new world. Lloyd’s has included it as one of 25 scary new risks on the horizon. The scare list was published by the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology following a conference of 35 scientists, environmentalists and policymakers.

The list of potential threats to earth’s ecosystem—including mankind—resulted from an exercise called “horizon scanning.” The idea is to identify the risks before they emerge. “It isn’t always possible to predict the consequences of new scientific methods, but you can usually identify the possible risks,” Professor Bill Sutherland of the University of Cambridge says.

Trevor Maynard, Lloyd’s manager of emerging risks, says the importance of the “list” is that it includes “threats with obvious implications for insurers, such as an increase in extreme weather events.”

But the list also produced other threats with less obvious implications, Maynard says. For example, there is the introduction by companies of invasive plant species to meet demands for biofuels and whether any liability issues might arise as a consequence. To say nothing of those run amok micro-robots out to destroy us.

Just what is nanotechnology and how big is the industry? When you think about nanotech, think small and then think smaller. “Nano” comes from the Greek word for “dwarf.” One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is less than 100,000 nanometers thick.

Atoms are the basic building blocks of all matter: cars, flowers, animals, buildings, stars and us. The arrangement of these atoms determines what is built. Scientists combine atoms to create new materials such as medicines, electronics and sunscreens. In nanotechnology, scientists manipulate atoms one at a time.

The potential for nanotechnology translates into big business. Between 1997 and 2005, government investments in nanotech R&D around the world soared from $432 million to about $4.1 billion. Investment by the private sector now exceeds government spending. By some estimates, nanotech will contribute nearly $1 trillion to the global economy by 2015 and employ two million workers.

We already use products based on nanotechnology, but in the very near future, scientists say, nanotech will invade every aspect of our lives.

Most nanotechnology embedded in products, such as phones, poses little risk to humans. However, some studies show that nanoparticles used in clothing or cosmetics may pose a risk if they are absorbed into the skin, inhaled or digested.

Every new material has the potential to be toxic. A good example is asbestos, which has two forms. One is a harmless mineral and the other a nano-tube of atoms, which can cause lung cancer and other diseases.

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