FUD Fight Over Nanotech

A story began to circulate several years ago that using a mobile phone at a gas station could trigger an explosion. The story became so prevalent that cell phone manufacturers such as Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) were obliged to place warnings in the handbooks they sold with their phones. We now know the story was merely a myth -- that a spark from a cell phone had never triggered an explosion at a gas pump, and that such a thing could not actually happen. Yet people still believe it to be true.

In Europe, meanwhile, there are widespread bans on genetically modified food because of health concerns. Yet populations outside Europe enjoy the disease-free food, benefit from the increased yield, and somehow stay alive and healthy. How much more of an investment would have Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) have been over the past few years without the European bans?

These are the things that can happen when "FUD" -- fear, uncertainty, and doubt -- surrounds new technology. In Motley Fool Rule Breakers, we are determined to avoid having the same thing happening to nanotechnology. We use the newsletter as a vehicle to help educate readers about nanotech, because it is of crucial importance that potential investors understand what this new technology is and what it is not. From there, we hope to lead readers to sustainable and rewarding investments in responsible companies that are attempting to bring this new science to a commercial market.

That's not to say that FUD hasn't affected nanotechnology. A recent article commenting on the potential health and safety concerns related to nanotech got front-page prominence on Yahoo!'s home page and subsequently received even more publicity when CNN.com repeated the article in its entirety.

There was little of substance in the article itself, other than calling for more research-and-development spending on what might be a problem. The story made reference to the huge settlements paid out as a result of illnesses related to asbestos, which was understood to be highly toxic years after it began to be used. The scare threats even included a mention of Michael Crichton's book Prey, a work of fiction in which nanobots develop the potential to lay waste to the entire world, leaving a "gray goo" in their wake.

The usual suspects warn of dire consequences to the world's health in the name of profit. A spokesman from a nonprofit eco-organization demands total withdrawal of nano-products on the market, including sunscreens, food additives, and stain-resistant pants. Perhaps he should add Babolat's tennis rackets, Wilson's tennis nano-bags and even Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPod nano to his list. (Actually, Wilson's bags and Apple's music player are both winners of our nano-faker awards -- there is nothing "nano" apart from the marketing in either of them.)

We are not advocating simply ignoring basic health and safety concerns as they may relate to nanotech, but we strongly urge investors, scientists, and the public in general to educate themselves.

Calling for wholesale bans simply because "we do not know" shows a paucity of intent and a desire to block innovations. Those innovations may one day produce a cure for cancer, a solution to the impending energy crisis, and even an elevator to outer space -- all through the knowledge gained about manipulating matter at the atomic scale.

No, the nano-products currently on the market are clearly not at this revolutionary stage of promise, but even they still have the potential to disrupt existing industries. Take the aforementioned nano-pants produced by NanoTex. Imagine clothes that repel all stains and smells and that remain clean whatever you do in them. How does that affect the existing industry of washing machines, detergents, and so on? How much less energy does a society consume in the process?

Does anyone reading the "ban-nano" argument really believe that golf balls with nano-components do anything other than (hopefully) fly straighter and longer than golf balls using present-day technology? (Nanodynamics has developed just such a ball.) Are we high handicappers supposed to continue with our hooks and slices simply because a lobby decides to spread FUD ahead of responsible analysis?

Can Ablynx possibly hope to commercialize nanobodies, a next generation of therapeutic antibodies, without going through the arduous but necessary route of extensive clinical trials with the Food and Drug Administration? Is the FDA not there precisely to test new treatments and weed out possible toxic drugs long before they meet the human body? Nanobodies, after all, may deliver an effective therapy for Alzheimer's disease, but not if the lobbyists have their way and suspend research until we know more. It is precisely the research being paid for by private venture capital -- $40 million in Ablynx's case -- that will lead the way to knowing more.

For example, can the nanoshells from Nanospectra Biosciences kill cancer cells by using lasers and thermal heat while causing less damage to surrounding tissue and offering less toxicity than current chemotherapy agents? That question still needs to be answered, and the necessary trials will eventually provide the answer. If any readers have had the misfortune to see a loved one suffer through any of the current available courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, they will be glad to see innovation of this type continue, so that we can better understand how to safely harness the unique properties that matter possesses at the nanoscale.

In the realm of energy, we increasingly read of those who argue that we must seek out alternative forms of fuel because worldwide oil production has passed its peak. Indeed, a failure to find alternatives could lead to a catastrophic meltdown of industrialized societies. Yet it is nanotechnology that promises to lead us away from fossil fuels -- the very fuels that many nanotech resisters decry the most.

Even a cursory glance at what nanotechnology might be able to offer in harnessing solar, wind, and wave power can only lead to a desire for more innovation in carbon nanotube and fullerene development. Nanotubes, which possess great strength and unique thermal and electrical-conductivity properties, may provide the missing link for providing commercial yields in converting light, wind, and wave power to electrical energy.

Imagine painting your roof with an organic nanomaterial capable of converting sunlight into enough energy to power all of your household needs. Now imagine that same coating on every residence, in every major city of the industrialized world. There would be no more power stations and all of their attendant pollution. Researchers at two leading U.S. universities have already produced this material and are working on improving its yield! The green lobby should be shouting the loudest over the benefits that nanotechnology may bring in providing us a cleaner, greener world -- not to mention a world that's cheaper for us as consumers.

Or consider nano-developments in battery technology that might accelerate the use of hybrid cars. Companies as diverse as Toshiba on the one hand and newly formed Catalytic Solutions on the other are striving, courtesy of nanotechnology, to develop new ways to power vehicles that will eliminate our reliance on oil.

Our goal in the Nanotech Universe corner of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter is, first, to become educated about emerging nanotechnologies, and second, as a result of that education, to be able to find the companies that bring innovative and safe solutions to present-day and future problems. In short, we seek out companies that disrupt existing industries, create new ones, and provide us as investors with extraordinary growth returns. Come and join us, and share in the journey.

Carl Wherrett owns shares in Nokia and was once severely rebuked for using his mobile phone at a service station. John Yelovich owns shares in none of the above companies and has never been rebuked at all -- he is far too nice. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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