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President and Executive Director
The prediction by various publications and organizations that 2007 will be the year that the discussion of nanomaterials safety hits the mainstream media appears to be on track. We believe it is essential that "nano EHS" research not be limited to assessment of potential risks, but also focus on methods for optimized design of nanomaterials in order that human and environmental safety be assured at the same time as performance and cost objectives are met.
December 20th, 2006
Moon Shots, Golf Swings and Safe, Green Nanotechnology
...by James E. Hutchison and Robert D. "Skip" Rung
Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute
The prediction by various publications and organizations that 2007 will be the year that the discussion of nanomaterials safety hits the mainstream media appears to be on track. American consumers, which early surveys have shown have a generally optimistic and positive attitude toward nanotechnology (and technology in general), are hearing more and more concern about the presence of "nanotechnology" in familiar products such as clothing, sporting goods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals; industry groups are developing and sharing worker protection protocols; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will place a burden of proof on suppliers of nanosilver to show that environmental harm will not occur as a result of use and disposal of objects containing their product; and most recently the Berkeley City Council amended its hazardous materials regulations to require researchers and manufacturers to "report what nanotechnology materials they are working with and how they are handling the tiny particles" (Associated Press, 12/12/06). All of this is occurring as applications of nanomaterials are growing rapidly, but still in advance of high volume (on an industrial scale) shipments of nanomaterials. And also in advance of a settled understanding of potential safety and environmental hazards unique to nanomaterials. The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office is right now soliciting public input on research needs related to the environmental, health, and safety aspects of engineered nanoscale materials.
ONAMI has been thinking deeply about this topic since inception, with the establishment of our Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing thrust area (http://greennano.org ). Our research efforts address the need for precise toxicological methods to assess nanomaterial safety; molecular-level design of high-performance, yet safe, nanostructured materials; and breakthrough manufacturing approaches for optimizing both performance/cost and process safety. In this column, we lay out our thoughts regarding a proactive approach to both public engagement and responsible development of nanomaterials.
Our posture on nanotechnology EHS is essentially two-pronged:
1. Applied nanoscience is a fundamentally important technology that promises enormous economic and social benefits, in which the public has a great interest. At the same time, EHS issues should be dealt with accurately and transparently to engender public confidence that any new/emergent risks will be handled properly and non-defensively. On this, it seems, most agree. By virtue of the growing attention to nano EHS, we are already (intentionally or not) in a proactive position relative to earlier technological developments. This carries the downside of possibly behaving in an overly conservative fashion (seeing only risks), as well as the upside of doing things correctly from the very early stages and increasing the odds of avoiding the expense and unpleasantness associated with remedying mistakes down the road, e.g. asbestos. Confidence in the development approach and process, we believe, is going to be of greater value to the public than the acquisition and communication of technical data, though that is important as well - and of course essential to process development.
2. Thus there should be widely accepted proactive and systematic methods to reduce potential nanomaterials hazard by virtue of optimized design and process development - understanding and tuning interactions with biological systems together with desired performance attributes and manufacturing efficiencies. This strategy is briefly mentioned in the recent Nature
Commentary by Andrew Maynard et al, but we believe it is both possible and desirable to accelerate it relative to the timeline given in the article. We believe it is, in fact, essential to develop proactive solutions in tandem with the understanding of hazards. Design and evaluation methods based on fundamental understanding of all goals will make it less likely that new products will fail late stage EHS "certification" (creating unpleasant pressures on developers) and more likely that nano-appropriate EHS testing during development will point to optimum design modifications before the massive late stage manufacturing, customer qualification and product rollout investments have been made. This is analogous to the common practice of engineering testing throughout the development of high tech products (such as semiconductor processes and components) in order to identify and resolve problems as early as possible, and thereby avoid hugely expensive and disruptive failures during manufacturing scale-up or market introduction.
Planners of a space mission don't wait for a problem to occur, but instead anticipate problems and design the solutions in advance. Moon shot success utterly depends on this. In the case of nanostructured materials, a widely publicized but preventable (in hindsight) safety problem is a scenario we all wish to avoid, and there is every reason to believe we can do so by proactive design.
The key to all of this, we believe, is to marry molecular-scale design strategies and processes with the principles of green chemistry to achieve "green nanotechnology". This might sound like an over-constrained wish to "have it all", but it really is not. It seemed difficult, looking forward, for the semiconductor industry to transition from the solvents (such as TCE) used in its early days to safer alternatives. In retrospect, this worked extremely well, and there is no reason now to believe that accepting this objective retarded development of the world's most advanced and competitive industry. Similarly, it seemed difficult for the appliance industry to transition to non-ozone-depleting refrigerants, but once again the result was better products - and without compromise. A more entertaining analogy, perhaps, is the late 2003 decision by Tiger Woods to re-tool his golf swing. In spite of being the world's best golfer, he knew he could and should do better, and wanted to "own" his swing. So he undertook what appeared to be a significant risk, and a great career reached new heights of performance - and future promise.
For further information about ONAMI's Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing strategies and our assessment of research needs, please visit our website at http://www.safernano.org/strategies.html
We'll be holding our second annual ONAMI Safer Nano technical workshop March 12-13, 2007 to discuss these topics in detail, including our latest research. Additional information on this event can be found at http://greennano.org/marchevent.html