Nanotechnology Truths and Misconceptions
Nanotechnology and the products spawned from this exciting field continue to grow at an explosive rate. From electronics to medical devices to automotive and even cosmetic products, the potential applications of nanotechnology seem endless.
Yet with the promise of new breakthroughs comes concern over the safety and environmental issues that nanotechnology raises.
Because the nanoparticles that comprise stronger and more efficient materials are slower to degrade, it is thought they can pass more easily from our organs into our bloodstream.
Given that a human hair is about 75,000 nanometers wide, it's easy to see how nanoparticles can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.
Take, for example, carbon nanotubes, which show great potential for strengthening building materials, improving cancer therapy and generating energy. In 2009, researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released preliminary findings showing inflammation and fibrosis in the lungs of lab mice, after the mice had “inhaled” small droplets of water containing carbon nanotubes.
This is just one example of how scientists and regulators are exploring the potential risks associated with nanotechnology, to determine what steps should be taken to reduce and even eliminate environmental, health and safety risks.
Robert M. Dunn, Ph.D., managing director of the Midwest Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery, based at the University of Notre Dame, points out that nanoscience itself ultimately will help us understand the specific problems — and solutions — associated with nanotechnology.
“Nanoparticles are all around us in our environment,” Dunn says. “Nanotechnology allows us to observe them for the first time, and nanoscience is going to be the mechanism that will identify dangerous nanoparticles, as well as discover ways to reduce health concerns.”
Dispelling misconceptions about nanoelectronics research
When it comes to one specific area of nanotechnology — nanoelectronics — the more pressing health and safety concerns do not realistically apply, says Wolfgang Porod, Ph.D., director of Notre Dame's Center for Nano Science and Technology. Nanoelectronics involve electronic components on the nanoscale level.
“Most of the health concerns related to nanotechnology are about nanoparticles, which may enter the environment via the air or water and be inhaled or ingested,” says Porod. “Yet our work in nanoelectronics is very different because these electronic components do not become airborne. Instead, they are fabricated on a semiconductor chip.”
Patrick Fay, Ph.D., professor of electrical engineering and director of the clean room at Notre Dame's Stinson-Remick Hall of Engineering, understands firsthand the concerns the public may have about the safety of nanoparticles.
“While people are fearful about the possibility of inhaling particulates, within the nanoelectronics sphere, concerns about particulates are a non-issue,” says Fay. “A completed chip is still macroscopic in size, so it is not any different than the microelectronics that existed before. What is different is that the individual devices on the chip are much smaller, and as a consequence, the chip can offer greatly enhanced functionality.”
Solid safety measures at Stinson-Remick
So, the good news about nanoelectronics research is that it does not really involve the toxicity problems associated with nanoparticles.
And even better news is that Stinson-Remick has excellent safety measures in place to protect researchers who occasionally use certain toxic substances in their research.
“For example, some of the gases we work with are toxic, and so we have comprehensive monitoring systems to detect any kind of leak,” Fay says. “This monitoring system tests the air in the lab and in the lab exhaust for toxic chemicals. The sensors are placed in various locations around the laboratories and run continuously.”
Fay says this system is similar to what is in place for many semiconductor and processing facilities around the world. If any problem is detected, the system is designed to automatically shut off the gas supply to ensure the situation does not escalate.
“The sensitivity of the system is excellent,” he says. “In addition, all of the effluent from the lab — the leftover liquid chemicals and gases from processing — is neutralized either on-site or in conjunction with Notre Dame's Risk Management and Safety Department.”
Equally critical in the overall safety plan at Stinson-Remick is the thorough training of all users at the facility.
“We train everyone involved so that they have an appreciation for the safety requirements of the processes they use, and the proper procedures and precautions to take,” Fay says. “They also wear specialized clothing, which they put on in separate gowning rooms. Not only does this practice serve to protect the environment in which they work, but it also protects our researchers.”
The Reilly Center leads important safety discussions
Along with its reputation for conducting cutting-edge nanotechnology research, Notre Dame is a leader in exploring the issues that surround such valuable research. Critical discussions and policy-making take place at Notre Dame's John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values.
Kathleen Kolakovich Eggleson, Ph.D., who formerly served as the Reilly Center's associate director, believes that the most pressing concern related to nanotechnology is “the vast unknown” about its nature.
“It is true that both naturally occurring and engineered nanoparticles can persist in the environment as aerosols and enter the body by inhalation,” Eggleson says. “The threat to our health, however, would depend on exposure — the amount, the duration and the frequency. In general, we do not yet have enough data to form a complete picture of which specific nanomaterials pose a significant threat to human health or the environment, and which are relatively benign.”
But the Reilly Center is actively taking steps to reduce the information gap surrounding nanomaterials and safety.
The mission of the Reilly Center is to promote the development of science and technology to the benefit of the common good in an ethical manner that upholds the dignity and rights of each person. With this in mind, the Reilly Center is studying the health and safety concerns related to nanotechnology. Its leaders took a significant step in that direction by hosting a conference on that subject last spring.
“We collaborated with the Center for Nano Science and Technology in bringing together experts, decision-makers and stakeholders who seldom gather around the same conversational table,” Eggleson says.
The conference, entitled “Toward Regulation of Nanomaterials: a conversation between industry, academia, law and government,” was such a success that plans to continue this collaboration are under way.
Reilly's scholars and staff are optimistic about the various measures now in place to better understand and address safety and health issues surrounding nanotechnology research. A portion of federal expenditures dedicated to the investigation of such issues is proof that federal agencies are paying attention.
“The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health had previously established guidelines for the personal protective equipment that is effective in protecting nanotechnology workers who handle fine and ultrafine particles in the workplace,” Eggleson says. “NIOSH is also conducting research specific to the health and safety of these workers and is adapting guidelines as new data become available.”
Eggleson very recently assumed a new and elevated role at Notre Dame when it comes to exploring these important issues in the field of nanotechnology. As of this month, she joined the Center for Nano Science and Technology as a research scientist, and she will focus specifically on the environmental, health, safety, ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology.
The increasing emphasis specifically on the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology (commonly called ELSI in the field) is part of a national trend. Case in point: The 10-year strategic direction of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a coordinating agency for 25 federal agencies, reflects an increased focus on ELSI. Toward that end, the National Nanotechnology Initiative will develop special research, educational and communication programs pertaining to the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology development.
The impressive advances stemming from today's nanotech world already have yielded numerous innovative materials, devices and structures. However, as Porod points out, it is important to realize that nanoparticles and their potential health effects are not new, and have in fact existed since the beginning of time.
But, thanks to ongoing efforts at Notre Dame and elsewhere to understand the nature of nanoparticles, we're increasingly arming ourselves with the knowledge needed to counter potential health and safety risks associated with them.
Put simply, by becoming smarter about nanotechnology, we're becoming safer in the process.
“Nanoparticles naturally occur in the environment, such as in dust and smoke,” Porod says. “When cavemen sat around a fire, they inhaled nanoparticles. When digging in the dust, one inhales nanoparticles. What is new, however, is our capability to ‘see' these nanoparticles and study their properties, thanks to nanotechnology research.
“We have already learned that the interactions between nanoparticles and living cells are very complex, and they depend not only on the chemical composition of these particles, but also on their size, and even shape. Based on our new technological capabilities, our equally new understanding of the interactions between nanoparticles and life processes likely will lead to better preventative measures, cures and the regulation of health issues that have been around for a long time.”
Source: Southbend Tribune /...
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