Nanotech riddle: How green is Europe’s ‘goo’?

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PARIS, Aug. 14, 2003 — “Gray goo” refers to the theory of out-of-control, self-replicating nanobots. But it’s “green goo,” the concept’s environmental cousin, that is furrowing brows in Europe, raising fears of ecology-wrecking biological machines. Both varieties of goo have invited themselves inside the corridors of European power.

Greenpeace and Canada’s ETC Group set off major brouhahas recently with warnings about the environmental risks of nanoparticles. Greenpeace has said that more dollars should be spent on research surrounding the unintended environmental fallout from nanotechnology, but the Canadian group has called for an outright ban until leaders can establish safe lab protocols.

The European Union held an all-day seminar on nanotech and converging technologies at the European Parliament on June 11. The seminar presented the current situation, examined the risks and potential of this powerful technology and discussed possible ways to regulate it.

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Speakers included members of the European Parliament like Yves Pietrasanta of the French Green Party; Sweden’s Anders Wijkman, a Christian Democrat; and Britain’s Labour MEP, Eryl McNally. “Politicians should always ask questions when a new technology comes out,” McNally said. “I’m very excited about nanotechnology, but if scientists have concerns, I want to hear about them.”

Most other speakers were from academia and nongovernmental groups like ETC and Greenpeace.

Nanoforum, the pan-European forum for nanotechnology, run by a mix of publicly and privately funded small tech groups, held a Scandinavian FP6 information day in Copenhagen June 12. The European Union’s five-year scientific research program, commonly known as FP6, is very small tech intensive.

“The goal of this event was to encourage Danish and Scandinavian researchers and companies to participate in the Sixth Framework Program,” said Morten Bogedal, administrative director for the Nordic Nanotech Network. “But it was also a networking opportunity.” The Sixth Framework is the European Union’s main instrument for research funding.

France’s innovation agency, l’ANVAR, has also been busy supporting small tech in recent months. The state-funded agency has chosen nanotechnology as one of its four main areas of promotion for 2003. L’ANVAR’s job is to help fund risky research projects in small- and medium-size businesses. If approved, projects receive 50 percent public funding — $400,000 on average. If the research is successful, the funding becomes a zero-interest loan that must be repaid.


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