Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology – An Emerging Industry

Summary

Longer lasting tennis balls, stain-free clothing, improved paints and coatings and other currently available products have been improved by using nanotechnology-produced materials. Nanotechnology promises to revolutionize medicine and many other industry sectors including electronic, magnetic and optoelectronic, biomedical, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, energy, catalytic and materials applications1,2.

Businesses and governments are fueling the growth of this emerging industry. In 2004 an estimated 6.8 billion dollars were invested world-wide in support of nanotechnology research3. The latest updates and news are available from the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) website.

What is Nanotechnology?

The term “Nanotechnology” comes from the nanometer unit of measure. One nanometer is approximately 1/60,000 the diameter of a human hair. The U.S. Department of Energy provides a useful Web site that puts the “nanoscale” in perspective.

Nanotechnology builds materials by manipulating matter at the atomic level4. The technologies that support these processes and the nanomaterials that result from them are collectively referred to as nanotechnology.

What are Nanomaterials?

Some nanomaterials, such as fumed silica, carbon black and titanium dioxide, have been used for years but are just now being labeled “nano”. New nanomaterials usually have unique structures, surface characteristics or other novel chemical, physical and/or biological properties. Nanomaterials often have no value when considered in isolation but when incorporated into products or processes they “enable” the product to exhibit some new quality or function5.

Newer nanomaterials include carbon nanotubes and Buckminsterfullerene or “Bucky Balls”. Carbon nanotubes resemble a lattice of seamlessly rolled-up carbon atoms. This material is extremely light weight, strong, and has other unique properties. “Bucky Balls” are a unique form of carbon that resembles a soccer ball. The molecule is twice as hard as diamond and is the roundest known molecule of its size6.

What is the concern about Nanotechnology?

The health and environmental risks from exposure to nanomaterials are not yet clearly understood. Many nanomaterials are formed from nanometer-scale particles (nanoparticles) that are initially produced as airborne particles or liquid suspensions. Exposure to these materials during manufacturing and use may occur by inhaling them, skin contact or ingesting them. Very little information is currently available on the most important exposure routes, exposure levels and toxicology. The information that does exist comes primarily from the study of ultra-fine particles (typically defined as particles smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter).

Ultra-fine particles that do not dissolve are more toxic, gram for gram, than larger particles because smaller particles have a relatively larger surface area. There are strong indications that particle surface area and surface chemistry are primarily responsible for the toxic effects seen in cell cultures and test animals. Research is underway to determine the extent to which ultra-fine particles can penetrate the skin. There is also concern that inhaled nanoparticles may move from the lungs into other organs.

Workers in nanotechnology-related industries have the potential to be exposed to uniquely engineered materials with novel sizes, shapes and physical and chemical properties at levels far exceeding ambient concentrations. Much research is still needed to understand the impact of these exposures on health and how best to devise appropriate exposure monitoring and control strategies. Until a clearer picture emerges, the limited evidence available would suggest caution when potential exposures to nanomaterials may occur7,8.

Where can I get more information?

References:

  1. BBC News: Myths and realities of nano futures.
  2. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
  3. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: Designer molecules show promise in the fight against cancer.
  4. Book review: “The End of Technology As We Know It”. Review of “Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution” by K. Eric Drexler, Chris Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1993. Review by Christopher Hunt, Circuit Traces Communications, 1995.
  5. Chemical and Engineering News, “Nanomaterials”, Volume 81, Number 35 CENEAR 81 31 p. 15-22. September 1, 2003.
  6. Nanotubes and Buckyballs, Nanotech-now web page
  7. NIOSH Safety and Health Topic: Nanotechnology
  8. Nanomaterials: a Risk to Health at Work? This UK-Health and Safety Executive web page lists a report summarizing presentations and discussions at the First International Symposium on Occupational Health Implications of Nanomaterials.

 

 

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