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The next big thing (is practically invisible)

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Nanotech has proven effective in boosting water-filtration systems. It is also being used to develop sensors that help the food industry detect suspected pathogens, says Rutgers chemist Oingrong Huang. Mr. Huang is working on nanoscale delivery systems that embed nutrients in foods that do not naturally have them. He says the Department of Defense is funding research into biodegradable food packaging that dramatically enhances shelf life. Many of these nano- enhanced products will migrate to supermarkets as soon as costs fall, he says.

Because so many markets are impacted, it's hard to pin down just how big nanotech really is. "Do you base it on value of nanotechnology sold, such as nano-tubes, or on the value they add to the products that they are incorporated in?" asks Tim Harper of CMP Cientifica, a consultancy based in Madrid. "Rather than looking for a nanotech market, it is better to look at the effect that nanotechnology has on other areas. It's like looking at the donut instead of the hole."

One oft-cited nanotechnology expert, Josh Wolfe of Lux Capital in New York City, has noted that many companies that are not engaged in nanotechnology use the "nano" prefix simply for its cachet, which only adds to the confusion.

But as nanotech's consumer payoffs grow, so do worries that some nanorelated products could be the thin end of a dangerous wedge. Some activists are calling for regulation and even a moratorium on some types of nanoscale research.

In January, a Canadian-based activist group issued a report attacking nanotechnology. The ETC Group says nanotech is proceeding too fast without proper studies of the possible downsides.

Already, the group has helped to turn public opinion in Europe against genetically modified foods, so-called "Frankenfoods." It now wants European authorities to forbid so-called molecular manufacturing. Its current report points in part to research at Rice University in Houston that suggests nanoparticles could eventually make their way into the food chain.

Vicki Colvin, director of Rice's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, where some of the work was conducted, is concerned that there is little hard evidence on the impact nanoparticles could have on health and the environment.

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