16 November 2006
Nanotech Challenges Identified
by Kate Melville
Humanity could squander the potential benefits of nanotechnology due to a lack of clear information about its risks, say a taskforce of international scientists writing in the journal Nature. Their report, "The Safe Handling of Nanotechnology," identifies five challenges that must be addressed if the technology is to ever reach its full potential.
"The specter of possible harm - whether real or imagined - threatens to slow the development of nanotechnology unless sound, independent and authoritative information is developed on what the risks are, and how to avoid them," writes lead author Andrew Maynard, from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
The market in nano-materials is already surprisingly large, totaling $32 billion last year. And industry estimates put the market size for goods that incorporate nanotechnology at $2.6 trillion by 2014. "We are running out of time to get it right," laments Maynard. "If the public loses confidence in the commitment of governments, business, and the science community to conduct sound and systematic research into possible risks, then the enormous potential of nanotechnology will be squandered. We cannot let that happen."
Maynard believes that fears over the possible dangers of some nanotechnologies may be exaggerated, but not necessarily unfounded. To address these concerns, the group's paper outlines what they call "Five Grand Challenges" to "stimulate research that is imaginative, innovative, timely and above all relevant to the safety of nanotechnology." The challenges include the development of:
- Instruments to assess environmental exposure to nano-materials,
- Methods to evaluate the toxicity of nano-materials,
- Models for predicting the potential impact of new, engineered nano-materials,
- Ways of evaluating the impact of nano-materials across their life cycle, and
- Strategic programs to enable risk-focused research.
The group has set specific targets for each of the challenges. For example, the development of a "universal aerosol sampler" for measuring exposure to airborne nano-materials, assessing whether fiber-shaped nano-particles present a unique health hazard, and establishing ways of engineering nano-materials that are intrinsically "safe-by-design."
"Some nano-materials may have the potential to cause harm to people and the environment," the group acknowledges. "Yet research into understanding, managing, and preventing risk often has a low priority in the competitive worlds of intellectual property, research funding and technology development."
"It is about whether governments, industry and scientists around the world are willing to make safe nanotechnology a priority. If the global research community can rise to the challenges we have set, then we can surely look forward to the advent of safe nanotechnologies," concluded Maynard.
Source: Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies