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Intelligent Machines

Mitsubishi: Out Front in Nanotech

Advance diplomacy may help the Japanese giant sidestep opposition to nanoparticle manufacturing.

Fullerenes, those soccer ball-shaped carbon molecules also known as “buckyballs,” have generated outsized expectations ever since their discovery in 1985. Scientists think they could eventually be used in chemical sensors, fuel cells, drug delivery, cancer medicines, and smart materials. Yet while commercial demand for fullerenes is gradually emerging, so are fears that these molecules, which measure only a few billionths of a meter across, pose serious health and environmental hazards.

To some, however, fullerenes’ potential is too great to ignore. Mitsubishi Corporation, which holds a number of key patents and licenses on fullerenes, began laying the groundwork for their commercialization 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 community, and the public.

In 2001, Mitsubishi Corporation and Mitsubishi Chemical, one of its sister firms in the Mitsubishi group, created Frontier Carbon to manufacture fullerenes. Today Frontier produces only a small amount of fullerenes for its 350 Japanese customers. But already it can make 40 metric tons of fullerenes a year and will eventually expand that capacity to 1,500 metric tons per year. No other producer comes close to these volumes. In fact, nanotechnology industry observers say the two Mitsubishis are taking a big risk by powering up fullerene capacity before there’s a market. They are, in one nanotechnology pundit’s words, “putting the cart, the barn, and the farm before the horse.”

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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 phenomenon releases free radicals that can wreak havoc on cell chemistry. And in a possible confirmation that fullerenes produce this effect, a highly publicized study described at an American Chemical Society meeting last March found that bass fish exposed to the molecules developed brain damage.

Counteracting such fears won’t be easy, since Japan, along with most of the industrialized world, lacks a government-approved system for monitoring, testing, or certifying nanotechnology products. But thanks in part to the efforts of Mitsubishi Corporation, Mitsubishi Chemical, and Frontier, Japan is well on its way to becoming the first nation with such protections, which could help inoculate its companies against a nanotech backlash.

Frontier was acutely aware of the fate of previous attempts to introduce controversial technologies, says Hideki Murayama, vice president and general manager of the company’s research and development center. For example, consumer resistance to Monsanto’s plans to sell genetically modified crops in Europe in the late 1990s snowballed into a five-year EU moratorium on the approval of new genetically modified organisms. Frontier is eager to avoid similar 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 Japan’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 nanomaterials.

“Murayama has made very smart moves and kept us completely informed,” says Masahiro Takemura, a nanoscale-materials specialist at Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science. “At this point, he deserves our help, because he’s helping Japan in a way that brings us honor, educates the public, and will probably make the companies more competitive.”

It remains to be seen whether this ringing endorsement ultimately translates into sensible regulations and profits. But Mitsubishi is fortifying the trust and the relationships 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 bewilderment is before the backlash, not after.

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