Nanotechnology, which concerns the study of and working with matter on an ultra-small scale, is widely perceived as one of the key technologies of the 21st century with a potential to grow into a 1 trillion euro industry within a decade. Fears are growing that the field could develop into a political battleground with fiery debates about environmental and ethical consequences and dangers - just as has happened in the field of biotechnology.

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Nanotechnology involves studying and working with matter on an ultra-small scale: one nanometre is one-millionth of a millimetre and a single human hair is around 80,000 nanometres in width. The technology stretches across the whole spectrum of science, touching medicine, physics, engineering and chemistry, and so is difficult to pin down to one discrete area. Nanosubstances are already included in sunscreens to block ultraviolet rays, while nanoceramics are being used as bone-replacement agents. Research is expected to lead to advances in areas such as medicine, environment, manufacturing, communications and electronics.

Described as 'a new industrial revolution', nanotechnologies have the potential to produce sweeping changes to all aspects of human society. Their use might be particularly beneficial in the areas of environment, communication, health and production. Supporters of this view say that they could deliver cleaner, safer, more competitive production processes, as well as smarter, more durable and more user-friendly products. This could provide innovative answers to the triple challenge of sustainable development: how to fuel economic growth, while preserving the environment, and at the same time enhance the safety, security and quality of life of European citizens.

At the same time, critics warn of dangers such as terrorist use of weapons based on nanotechnology, or the so called 'grey goo' scenario, in which the biosphere is destroyed by out-of-control, self-replicating robots.

Although there is no immediate evidence for such dangers, decision makers agree that in order to gain public support, there is a strong need for an informed debate about the safety of products at the nanoscale, how future advances can be monitored and controlled, and who may profit from them.

European strategy for nanotechnology was adopted in 2004 to boost European nanotechnology R&D and to improve technology transfer to turn research findings into commercially-viable products. A public consultation on the strategy revealed a strong stakeholder consensus on that nanotechnology will have a significant impact on European industry and its citizens within ten years from now (see EurActiv 12/01/05).