Can you explain nanotechnology?

Most people can’t. The United Kingdom’s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering conducted a public opinion survey in 2004 and found that fewer than two in ten people could explain what it meant.

If all you know is nanotechnology involves the research, manufacture and use of extremely small products, then you might want to expand your understanding.

The global economic impact of nanotechnology products and services is estimated to reach $2.6 trillion by 2015. “Nothing, it seems, will escape the influence of nanotechnology,” surmised the consulting firm Deloitte earlier this year. And that includes the environmental health and safety profession.

One of the problems with nanotechnology is we’re going to hear more and more fantastic things about it. And fantastic is not too far from scary for many people. It will be up to EHS pros to help employers and employees separate science fact from science fiction. Hazard and risk communication programs will need to be re-energized when an employer considers using nano-materials in their products.

OK, what is it?

According to the U.S.’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), nanotechnology includes all three of the following conditions:

  • Research and technology development at the atomic, molecular or macromolecular levels, in the length scale of approximately 1-100 nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range;

  • Creating and using structures, devices and systems that have novel properties and functions because of the small and/or intermediate size; and,

  • Ability to control or manipulate on the atomic scale.

    Let’s get small

    To get an idea of the size range we’re talking about, imagine we continually sliced the thickness of a page from this magazine by one-half. After about a dozen slices the page would cease to be paper as we know it. The page may become invisible to the naked eye before 100 slices. Now imagine 100,000 slices and we’re at nanometer size and atomic scale.

    Important point: the classical laws of physics change dramatically at atomic level. A nano-sized material may behave quite differently from its big brother. The theories of quantum mechanics, which even Einstein doubted initially, are the driving science of nanotechnology.

    Excitement builds

    Novel properties found in nano-materials excite the market. Researchers from the University of Texas, for example, reported in August 2005 the creation of industry-ready sheets of “nanotube” materials that are translucent, stronger than steel and can be heated to emit light. Researchers call these sheets “a fundamentally new material” and they are considering product applications such as car bodies that also function as a battery.

    Could the page you’re holding benefit from nanotechnology? Ecology Coatings, a small nanotech company in Akron, Ohio, recently discovered an inexpensive way to make paper waterproof, yet easy to write on, by applying a liquid nano-material to it. Prior to nanotechnology, the cost to create waterproof paper was too prohibitive for common use.

    Nanotube materials have been plated onto products such as golf clubs and tennis rackets to make them lighter but stronger. Newer stain- and wrinkle-resistant clothing is effective because of nano-materials. Nano-sized drugs exhibit greater solubility or have novel properties that may increase their effectiveness. Nano-materials are being applied to glass to make windows “self-cleaning.” And nano-materials are boosting the power of computers. Deloitte appears on target — nothing may escape the influence of nanotechnology.

    EHS questions

    But how safe are these wonder nano-materials? There’s a lot of uncertainty on this topic. And this is where EHS pros will begin to earn their pay.

    I’ve read that nano-sized aluminum particles may spontaneously ignite. You will need to verify this. Could other nano-sized metals spontaneously ignite? And what is the best way to extinguish a fire involving nano-sized materials? A stream of water probably wouldn’t work.

    Titanium dioxide is a good absorber of UV light and it is used in sunscreen lotions. Standard size titanium dioxide, however, is white and when used in sunscreens will leave a visible appearance when applied to the skin. Nano-sized titanium dioxide is transparent and is now preferred in sunscreens because it leaves no unsightly residue. But EHS-wise, do we treat the two sizes of titanium dioxide differently? More importantly, should existing materials undergo new toxicity testing, such as required by the Toxic Substances Control Act, once they become nano-sized?

    Could nano-sized materials penetrate through the skin? Or once taken into the body could they be lodged in organs such as the brain? If nano-sized particles are so ultra-small, what respirators or other PPE will offer protection? What about ventilation systems, vacuums, and other means to capture or measure nano-materials, such as air sampling for industrial hygiene purposes — what works, what doesn’t? Could nano-materials create pollution problems?

    There is limited experience to go on with nano-sized materials. Some carbon black powder, welding fumes, and diesel exhaust may reach nano-size. But the more we learn about these materials, the more often we find the smaller, ultra-fine particles are more harmful than the larger particles. Does this hold true for other nano-sized particles?

    Employer/client needs

    What do your employer and major clients think about nanotechnology? Are they looking to make or use nano-materials in their products? Ask them about it now to show your interest and willingness to contribute. EHS pros should be part of any new product development team to ensure protection of employees, the public and the environment. Before you ask about business plans, though, gain enough knowledge to ask the right questions. Then seek support for gaining more information by attending a formal course on the topic.

    SIDEBAR 1: Courses

    Most EHS organizations are sponsoring courses to help their members learn more about nanotechnology. Call your organization to find out when and where they plan to hold a course on nanotech. Since these courses are new, make sure you learn about content and objectives before signing up. Try to match the course with what best works for your needs. You shouldn’t feel bashful about talking with the instructor(s) before registering for a course.

    SIDEBAR 2: Web resources

    Fortunately, there are plenty of new Web sites dedicated to EHS nanotechnology issues.

    In August 2005, the International Council on Nanotechnology and Rice University Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology launched the world’s first nano-EHS database at The database houses the growing number of scientific findings related to the EHS risks and benefits of nanotechnology.

    NIOSH’s Web site on nanotechnology is found at EPA’s Web site for nanotechnology is at Numerous links to other nanotechnology Web sites are found at the NIOSH and EPA sites.