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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Carbon Nanotubes: Love 'em or Hate 'em?

Today's edition of Ray Kurzweil's always fascinating website on "accelerating intelligence" has three separate articles on carbon nanotubes. The first two point to the long-term potential of carbon nanotubes, while the third raises a very troubling issue which, if left unaddressed (or, alternatively, not handled properly), could severely damage the emerging field.

The first article talks about Motorola's work in developing a new color display using carbon nanotubes. If successful, the material could lead to thinner, less expensive, and more vivid flat panel displays. The second positive development comes out of Carnegie Mellon University. Researchers there claim to have developed a method for producing polymer films with "highly ordered nanocarbon arrays." Among the many things such an advance could lead to is the creation of high density data storage devices.

As positive as these developments are, however, researchers at Rice University have found that buckyballs dissolve in water and, as such, might have a negative impact on the environment. Now to be fair, the press releases goes on to make clear that carbon nanotubes have also have many positive attributes (such as acting as an anti-bacterial agent) but, at a minimum, the research should serve as yet another warning sign that until the environmental and health effects of carbon nanotubes are better understood any company dealing with these materials is exposed to some potentially serious liability issues.

I remain bullish on the extraordinary potential of carbon nanotubes but this enthusiam will remain tempered until researchers and industry leaders do a better job of minimizing the very legitimate concerns that researchers at Rice University--and others--are raising.