Welcome to 2005's first issue of Nano Today, one of three nanotechnology supplements to Materials Todaythis year, following issues in December 2003 and December 2004.

Since that first issue in 2003, nanotechnology has gone through the turbulent phase typical of a new technology that spans many materials types and offers seemingly unquantifiable potential, but is seeking publicly acceptable, manufacturable, and economic mass-market applications.

In the dot.com boom of the late 1990s, unproven and overhyped information communications technology was flooded with finance, particularly venture capital, but this led to bust as commercial uptake and return on investment fell short. Similarly, heralded by the shrinking of microelectronics to nanoscale dimensions, there was a wave of interest in nanotechnology, boosted by its spread to other materials and fields, especially in medical and biological applications. Enthusiasm over its promise and future importance led to governments racing not to be left behind at the commercial phase, while venture capitalists invested in startup companies spinning off from research institutes and universities.

However, venture capital investment fell almost 50% in 2004, according to Lux Research, and the initial public offering of Nanosys was postponed. In addition, the US government's National Nanotechnology Initiative may see its first drop in annual funding since its launch in 2001 (see page 18).

A particular concern, following public suspicion of unproven technology like genetically modified foods, is uncertainty in environmental, health and safety, ethical, and societal impacts, especially because of unfounded fears of uncontrollable releases of self-replicating ‘nanobots’. Much effort is therefore being made both to research potential risks, particularly of potentially toxic, manufactured free nanoparticles, and to raise public awareness of the benefits of nanotechnology, for example through the UK government's commissioning of the joint Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report (page 18).

“Consumer acceptance will be key for nanotechnology's future development and thus for financial markets and venture capitalists,” says the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research, which is partnering in the European Commission's project Nanologue to promote dialog on benefits and potential impacts. Industry associations are also being formed, such as the European Nanotechnology Trade Association (see page 17), not just to represent companies to governments but also to engage the public.

The UK government's response to the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report agrees with the need to restrict release of manufactured, free nanoparticles, but proposes control rather than a moratorium, so as to not hinder development. Likewise, Peter Singer and colleagues stress on page 14 that concerns in developed countries should not hinder potential positive impacts in developing countries.

Recent months have seen a new round of venture capital funding, focused on maturing companies starting to make nanotubes and nanparticles in bulk and integrate them into existing product manufacturing processes. But this is still dwarfed by government funding of billions of dollars annually. It is vital that governments continue to fund research to make a maturing technology publicly acceptable and hence commercially viable. The UK government, for one, will publish more detail on its plans later this year, so it will be interesting to see if the challenge is to be accepted.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)00869-2