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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.
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.
ONAMI, the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, is Oregon's first Signature Research Center. A cooperative venture among government and world-class nanoscience and microtechnology R&D institutions and industry in the Northwest, ONAMI was created to cultivate research and commercialization to advance Oregon's leading economic sector and expand the benefits of technology innovation to traditional and natural resource industries.
ONAMI fosters a deep reach into fundamental science for the next source of innovation and high-wage employment opportunities. By putting nanotechnology to work in microsystems, ONAMI members are taking these advances from the lab through to commercialization.
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Robert D. "Skip" Rung
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