Sorting Wheat from Chafe

There is considerable activity in the world to develop regulations on nanomaterials. The questions that need to be asked is on what basis are these specifications being developed. The fact that materials change “physical characteristics” as they get smaller raises the question of how small a range of sizes would be appropriate to be able to fully classify a specific nanomaterial. If we can’t answer that question, how can we establish regulations? How well documented is the underlying information?

This raises the question of where does the information come from? If it is true data obtained by a scientific method then others can duplicate the experiments and reproduce the results. Sometimes there is a change of the resulting hypothesis over time. This can be due to: 1) improved experimentation with enhanced or new instrumentation; 2) different variations in the actual experimental process (more purified materials and/or larger sampling sizes); 3) additional knowledge about outside influencing factors; or. 4) bias in presenting the results.  Some examples follow.

1) Nano Materials

It is accepted that the ability to closely classify sizes/distributions of large nanomaterial quantities is both difficult and time consuming. I am unaware of any process available today that is able to evaluate a nanometer distribution of a large quantity of material – many hundreds or thousands of kilograms. Most measurements in the low nanometer range are time consuming due to sample preparation for the measuring process. Some scatterometry has been used, but does not give the resolution required. Basically, this is understandable due to being able to measure accurately to at least one and preferably two orders of magnitude smaller than the objects/material being manufactured. Tools have greatly improved over the last twenty years, but there is still a way to go.

2) Coffee

Is it good for you? It depends. An article in the New York Times indicates that there are a number of benefits and some other possible ones that are still unproven. [1] However, another article warms that caffeine can kill you – if you drink 118 cups a day (body weight of 75Kg with 50% probability of fatality).[2] Early work indicated that there were issues with coffee; however the sample size was extremely small.

3) Global Warming

There is significant disagreements about global warming. One side indicates that we are in a period of severe warming due to mankind causes. The other side disagrees with the conclusions and implies the results are based on selective data. There has been a recent report [3] that the earth could be entering into a mini-ice age! This hypothesis is based on the fact that the sun is going through a stage that earth has not seen since the late 1600s. Sunspots on the northern and southern hemispheres will cancel each other out giving rise to a low activity period. Increasing warmth can raise water levels. Decreasing temperatures can devastate farming and food production. Has anyone evaluated the impact of these two different events together? Professor Bob Shannon of Texas A&M was known to make the comment that “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” If factors are excluded in an evaluation, the potential for faulty conclusions increases.

4) Fracking and Groundwater

An interesting report released by the EPA concluded “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms (hydraulic fracturing) have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” There were some qualifications they found some possible interaction but stated the number was small with respect to the total wells. How did the press report these findings? [from Ref. 4]

  • EPA: Fracking Tainted Drinking Water, but Problems Not Widespread (S. News & World Report)
  • EPA report: Fracking no harm to drinking water (Florida Times-Union)
  • EPA: Fracking poses risk to water supply (Albany Times Union)
  • EPA Fracking Report Leaves Both Sides Claiming Victory (com)
  • EPA says new study doesn’t show fracking is safe (Charleston Gazette)

It appears that the results are in the eye of the beholder.


There is a serious problem when an observer, non-scientific or a scientific, looks at the facts through his/her beliefs. I use the work “beliefs” rather strongly. In today’s world, it appears that it is possible to find facts/fiction to support any idea or cause. If there is a common source for all subsequent publications, whatever it is needs to be questioned. Think about the falsified results on the effects of vaccinations. People become attached to an idea and are unwilling to investigate sources or alternatives.

I wish there were an easy answer, but, currently, we do not have a means of sorting truth from fiction. I think it will develop and the results will be obvious after the fact. Look at the Industrial Revolution and the resulting changes to society.

Some interesting nanotechnology developments next time.


  4. “EPA Examines Hydraulic Fracking” John Donnelly SPE JPT 2015 July issue commentary, page 18.


About Walt

I have been involved in various aspects of nanotechnology since the late 1970s. My interest in promoting nano-safety began in 2006 and produced a white paper in 2007 explaining the four pillars of nano-safety. I am a technology futurist and is currently focused on nanoelectronics, single digit nanomaterials, and 3D printing at the nanoscale. My experience includes three startups, two of which I founded, 13 years at SEMATECH, where I was a Senior Fellow of the technical staff when I left, and 12 years at General Electric with nine of them on corporate staff. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from James Madison University, and a B.S. in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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