Home' Technology Review : January 2005 Contents 34
Front in Nanotech
Advance diplomacy may help the
Japanese giant sidestep opposition
to nanoparticle manufacturing.
F , those soccer ball--
shaped carbon molecules also
known as "buckyballs," have
generated outsized expecta-
tions ever since their discov-
ery in 1985. Scientists think they could
eventually be used in chemical sensors,
fuel cells, drug delivery, cancer medicines,
and smart materials. Yet while commer-
cial demand for fullerenes is gradually
emerging, so are fears that these mole-
cules, which measure only a few billionths
of a meter across, pose serious health and
To some, however, fullerenes potential
is too great to ignore. Mitsubishi Corpora-
tion, which holds a number of key patents
and licenses on fullerenes, began laying
the groundwork for their commercializa-
tion in 1993, and company executives say
they realized from the beginning that they
would need to do voluntarily what many
companies won t do until forced: consider
the concerns of stakeholders in academia,
government, the environmental commu-
nity, and the public.
In 2001, Mitsubishi Corporation and
Mitsubishi Chemical, one of its sister
rms in the Mitsubishi group, created
Frontier Carbon to manufacture fuller-
enes. Today Frontier produces only a small
amount of fullerenes for its 350 Japanese
customers. But already it can make 40 met-
ric tons of fullerenes a year and will even-
tually expand that capacity to 1,500 metric
tons per year. No other producer comes
close to these volumes. In fact, nanotech-
nology industry obser vers say the two Mit-
subishis are taking a big risk by powering
up fullerene capacity before there s a mar-
ket. They are, in one nanotechnology pun-
dit s words, "putting the cart, the barn,
and the farm before the horse."
Headquarters: Tokyo, Japan
Net sales, Q1 2005: $4.61 billion
Net sales, Q1 2004: $4.28 billion
The case: To ensure that a commercial market
emerges, Mitsubishi is working ahead of time to
abate concerns about the health effects of the
carbon molecules known as fullerenes.
And then there are the health concerns.
It s well known that fullerenes suck up
loosely bound electrons from neighboring
molecules. Inside the body, this phenome-
non releases free radicals that can wreak
havoc on cell chemistry. And in a possible
con rmation that fullerenes produce this
e ect, a highly publicized study described
at an American Chemical Society meeting
last March found that bass sh exposed to
the molecules developed brain damage.
Counteracting such fears won t be easy,
since Japan, along with most of the in-
dustrialized world, lacks a government-
approved system for monitoring, testing,
or certifying nanotechnology products.
But thanks in part to the e orts of Mitsubi-
shi Corporation, Mitsubishi Chemical,
and Frontier, Japan is well on its way to be-
coming the rst nation with such protec-
tions, which could help inoculate its com-
panies against a nanotech backlash.
Frontier was acutely aware of the fate of
previous attempts to introduce controver-
sial technologies, says Hideki Murayama,
vice president and general manager of the
company s research and development cen-
ter. For example, consumer resistance to
Monsanto s plans to sell genetically modi-
ed crops in Europe in the late 1990s snow-
balled into a ve-year EU moratorium on
the approval of new genetically modi ed
organisms. Frontier is eager to avoid simi-
lar mistakes. "We know about the health
and environmental concerns," Murayama
says. "We very much want to address these
concerns in a collaborative way so that
everybody can see that we take them very
seriously and aren t trying to hide what we
know and don t know about them."
In one collaboration, representatives
of Mitsubishi Corporation and several
other Japanese chemical companies and
universities are in discussions with Ja-
pan s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and
Industry over what existing regulations
might also be applied to fullerenes, and
what new regulations might be needed to
limit people s and animals exposure to
"Murayama has made very smart
moves* and kept us completely informed,"
says Masahiro Takemura, a nanoscale-
materials specialist at Japan s National In-
stitute for Materials Science. "At this point,
he deserves our help, because he s helping
Japan in a way that brings us honor, edu-
cates the public, and will probably make
the companies more competitive."
It remains to be seen whether this ring-
ing endorsement ultimately translates into
sensible regulations and pro ts. But Mit-
subishi is fortifying the tr ust and the rela-
tionships that it will need in the future if
fullerenes are to reach their potential. It s
also reminding industry that the time to
address public fear and regulatory bewil-
derment is before the backlash, not after.
Sixty carbon atoms
join in a buckyball.
KENNETH EDWARD/BIOGRAFX/PHOTORESEARCHERS, INC.
*WWW.TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM When does it
make sense to work proactively with government?
Industry weighs in; keyword fullerenes.
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