Friday, January 30, 2009

New nano rules may leave Canada out in the cold

If you ask Canadian entrepreneur Neil Gordon about new rules coming next month requiring companies to detail their use of engineered nanomaterials, he'll tell you it's just another example of his government placing artificial constraints on nanotech commercialization.

That's why Gordon is now the ex-president of the now-defunct Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance.

"If Canada is becoming the first government in the world to require companies to provide information about their use of 'potentially' harmful nanomaterials in products, then there is another reason for entrepreneurs to avoid commercializing nanotechnology products in Canada," said Gordon, who is now president and CEO of Early Warning Inc., which is commercializing a nanotech-based biosensor.

But ask science adviser Andrew Maynard about Canada's first-in-the-world nanotech regulations, and he'll tell you how they are exactly what is needed now -- before too many companies use nanotechnology in their products. Maynard advises the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) in Washington, which focuses on the environmental, health and ethical implications of nanotechnology.

The rules are needed, he said, even though available toxicity information on some engineered nanomaterials is "patchy."

"But even patchy information is going to be more helpful to developing informed future regulations, than no information," Maynard said.

The rules, instituted by Environment Canada, are expected to come out in February, according to a news release issued by PEN earlier this week.

Canadian companies that manufactured or imported 1 kg or more of engineered nanoparticles in 2008 will be required to provide information about how the substance is used or managed and any existing data on their physical or chemical properties. It is a one-time requirement. The Canadian government will then use the information to evaluate possible risks to the public and the environment.

The regulations would be in line with a proposed regulatory framework released by Environment Canada and Health Canada in September 2007.

One problem with the rule, Gordon said, is that there are not too many Canadian nanotech companies around to regulate. And these rules could be the nail in the coffin.

"I have observed first-hand how the Canadian government had ignored the massive economic development opportunity from nanotechnology," he said.

"The Canadian government’s informal nanotechnology policy of allocating its limited nanotechnology funding almost exclusivity to government labs and government-owned universities has created a void of Canadian nanotechnology companies which for the most part are struggling to survive or have left Canada."

It is important to remember, too, Gordon said, that the question is not simply which substances are toxic, but also whether they are toxic in the small amounts used inside nanotech products.

Many of the current research on nanoparticle toxicity expose test animals to artificially high amounts of nanomaterials.

"A fish can die from eating too much fish food," Gordon said. "If the amount of nanoparticles in a product are at some miniscule level, as is typical for nano products, then the risk must account for what is really being used -- not some artificially high amount."

But it is just this shortage of information on nanoparticles that makes these rules needed, Maynard indicated.

"This decision by Canada -- to establish the world's first national mandatory nanoscale materials reporting program for companies -- is an important step toward ensuring that nanotechnology regulation is driven by accurate information and high-quality science," he said in a news release.

Friday, January 16, 2009

U.S., at last, begins assault on batteries

If you could just tune your ears above the recent clatter and racket that passed for debate over a bridge loan for the Big Three, you might have been able to just make out the tiny baby cries of a newborn U.S. auto industry.

I live in Detroit, so I heard the slap on that baby's ass, followed by the opening shrieks of a brat already born into a disadvantaged, dysfunctional family.

You see, in the literal power struggle over the next age of the automotive industry -- the electric age -- the U.S. battery industry is arriving late.

It's not that innovation is lacking. Some of the leading research into nanotech-enabled lithium-ion batteries is being done right in my hometown. But only now has it dawned on the federal and state governments to push that innovation forward through financial aid and tax breaks. And only now have U.S. battery companies realized that they can combine some of their efforts to bring those innovations from the lab to the marketplace.

Late and late.

But hopefully not too late.

Two years and an economic lifetime ago, I covered the Detroit auto show when a proud Bob Lutz unveiled the Chevrolet Volt (PDF 219k) hybrid electric concept vehicle to a great many ooohs and aahhhs even from the jaded press.

But a few months later, at the Society of Automotive Engineers' 2007 World Congress, I peaked under the hood of all that shiny new plastic and found disparate and desparate U.S. and European engineers sweating it out for what they assumed would be second place in the race to create safe, long-lasting batteries for vehicles like the Volt.

Today, the race is still for second place, behind Asia. And, as I covered the North American International Auto Show again this year, it looks like nanotechnology has come in second, too. GM chose Compact Power, a subsidiary of the Asian LG Chem, to provide the lithium-ion batteries for the Volt. A close second was A123 Systems, whose nanophosphate formula is an important ingredient in its li-ion batteries. The reason, according to GM, was the the formula seemed too experimental, the company too inexperienced and, most importantly, the battery manufacturing infrastructure just does not yet exist in the United States.

To its credit, GM is working on building its own battery infrastructure from the ground up. Another lesson learned from Toyota. So, there is still hope for nano-enhanced li-ion batteries, as there will be room for many players, eventually.

It's about time.

Of course, not in time to save my Motown hometown from further pain. But perhaps enough to implant an embryo that will, in time, give birth to a brand spanking new auto industry.