Nanotechnology raises big concerns

Nanotechnology is grabbing headlines these days and the growing prospects of its use is spurring increasing attention to safety issues. This article examines the worldwide reaction to burgeoning popularity of the technology and what safety concerns are legit.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

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Technology isn’t often the stuff of headlines, but nanotechnology certainly figures in more than its fair share these days. To give just one recent example, over the space of four days at the end of March in Germany, 97 cases of “intoxication” were reported among users of a particular bathroom sealant. Some of these were pretty severe, involving pulmonary edemas. The sealant was applied from an aerosol can in fairly enclosed spaces, suggesting some problems with the propellant material. Unfortunately, the sealant sold under the name MagicNano.

In next to no time, the product was withdrawn from the market. However, subsequent investigations into the significance of the nanoparticles contained in the sealant were somewhat hindered because of gaps in details about the formulations.

There is now some doubt whether the sealant was a product of nanotechnology after all, with the intoxication cases most likely being caused solely by the aerosol spray. Nevertheless, the initial press frenzy points up increasing public concerns about nanomaterials safety.

Safety initiatives

Proponents of the materials certainly have taken notice. For instance, German industry (including companies such as BASF, Bayer, Degussa and Solvay), universities and research institutes have just started a three-year program to develop test and measurement methods to analyze the safety of nanomaterials (CP, April, p. 17). With €5-million support from the federal government and €2.6-million from industry, the NanoCare project is to focus on ensuring that nanoparticles pose no risk to humans and the environment when used in chemical materials. “As with any new technology,” says Dr. Franz Saykowski, NanoCare project manager at Bayer, Leverkusen one of the industrial sponsors, “people have to be convinced of the benefits of nanotechnology.”

The 13 partners in the project will pool their resources to develop generally accepted test methods and use model systems to analyze the effects of new nanoparticles on health and the environment. Once the three-year study is completed, the database created will be maintained and made available to the general public via the web. “We place great value on communication with interested sections of society,” explains Saykowski.

The same laudable thinking lies behind another database set up in August 2005 by the International Council of Nanotechnology, based at Rice University, Houston, Texas. Administered by the university’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN), this database project stemmed from the chemical industry’s Vision 2020 Technology Partnership program. In creating a roadmap for the way in which the industry should approach the development of nanomaterials, “it became clear that determining their environmental, health and safety impact was a top priority,” says Vision 2020 chair Jack Solomon. “An informed decision about how to ensure the safety of nanomaterials requires a comprehensive review of where we are and where we’ve been with prior research.”

Given the scope of the subject, this was no easy matter and the database took three years to assemble. Kevin Ausman, CBEN’s executive director of operations, says the team at Rice transformed the database into an evolving document that would be as useful for the general public as it is for scientists. But more than that, he thinks it will be instrumental in establishing safe exposure levels and standards of care for nanomaterials.

As director of technology for the Industrial Design & Construction (IDC) division of engineering firm CH2M Hill, Portland, Ore., Mike O’Halloran has hands-on experience of designing and building nanotechnology research and production facilities (Figure 1). “In the nanoworld,” he says, “we are now beginning to be concerned about molecular level contamination. It’s leading to a rethinking of the requirements [for standardization], although they are not fully developed yet. There were some standards proposed several years ago for classifying molecular-level contaminants but they haven’t been adopted very well.”

Figure 1: Danish facility

Figure 1. CH2M Hill has been involved in project for the Danchip Nanotech Research Facility at Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Although IDC can offer widespread experience in technologies such as nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS), microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), chemical vapor deposition (CVD), nanolithography and nanophotonics, O’Halloran acknowledges the need for a wider awareness of material properties at the nanoscale, particularly among manufacturers and researchers working with such materials. “It’s looking more likely that they need to understand what it is they might be sensitive to, so we can deal with those chemicals and materials on their own,” he says.

The semiconductor industry arguably has had a longer involvement in working at the nanoscale than most other industry sectors, but, as the information-gathering projects in the U.S. and Germany show, the chemical industry is catching on fast to nanotechnology.

Burgeoning interest

The end-user market for nanotechnology is expected to grow at an annual rate of somewhere between 10% and 15% and be worth over $600 billion by 2010, according to BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, and Florham Park, N.J. Industry analyst BCC International, Norwalk, Conn., forecasts a more-modest $20.5 billion as the value of the total global consumption of all types of nanomaterials by the same year (reaching 10.3-million metric tons). However, this still reflects a 9.3% projected average annual growth rate.

But whatever the size of the market — and, as with anything labeled “nanotechnology,” precise definitions can be hard to come by here (apart from the generally held view that anything involving activities at below the 100 nm, or 0.1 micron, size range can loosely be called nanotechnology) — there can be no doubting the burgeoning interest from chemical companies charged with producing nano-sized materials. BASF, for instance, in April opened its first nanotechnology research center in Asia. The company’s Competence Center for Nanostructured Surfaces in Singapore will be spending $16.4 million on research through to 2008 — but this is only a small fraction of the $227 million that BASF plans to spend on nanotechnology worldwide.

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