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Silicon Oxide structure created using selective HF etching, by Yumin Shen, graduate student in Physics at The UO. 436X Magnification

On his way to class last spring, Jim Hutchison pauses to gaze at a huge hole in the ground. To most passersby on the University of Oregon campus, this rain-filled pit is an eyesore surrounded by a chainlink fence. But to Hutchison, a chemistry professor, it’s the foundation of what will be home to an exciting new field—nanotechnology, the science of the very, very small. When it officially opens in early 2008, the underground Lorry I. Lokey Laboratories (carved deep into the bedrock to isolate delicate instruments from the vibrations of passing vehicles) will establish solidly the University of Oregon as a leading center for this nascent science.

Nanotechnology’s proponents say its promised breakthroughs will change the world: from ultraefficient photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight into electricity to carbon nanowires 100 times stronger than steel; from “quantum dots”—exotic light-emitting crystals used to detect and treat diseases—to wastewater technologies that extract toxic metals from groundwater. Nanotechnology products are already hitting the market.

But some environmental organizations, such as the international Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC) group, claim that nanotechnology “poses enormous environmentaland social risks and must not proceed—even in the laboratory— in the absence of broad societal understanding and assessment.” Such environmental groups warn that these ultrasmall materials might escape into the environment or sneak into the human body with unknown consequences.

Although Hutchison does not share the views of ETC, he is also concerned about the effects of new technologies—and is doing something about it. He is well known in scientific circles for his pioneering work as a “green chemist,” committed to enhancing product safety and promoting sustainable manufacturing practices. Back in his cluttered office in Onyx Bridge, the Luke Skywalkerish–looking Hutchison says he wants materials scientists to learn from chemistry’s past mistakes and make this new science green. “Society has an incredible amount to gain from nanotech,” he says. “If we do it right, almost every area of life will be affected.” But if scientists fail to examine potential risks as well as benefits, says Hutchison, the new science may run into opposition that could thwart its enormous promise.

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