Getting to grips with nanomaterial toxicity

December 15, 2008

Introducing MINChar—a new community initiative to support effective material characterization in nanotoxicity studies.

logo_simpleHere’s a tough one:  Imagine you have a new substance—call it substance X—and you run some tests to see how toxic it is.  But you’re not quite sure what substance X is.

You know that it is a powder, and it is supposed to have chemicals x y and z somewhere in it.  But you don’t know how small the particles are, what shape they are, whether chemical z is on the surface of the particles or inside them, whether the particles all clump together when shoved into the test system or whether they can’t get far enough away from each other after being administered, or whether there is something else present in substance X that really shouldn’t be there.

Now imagine your tests show that substance X looks like it could be rather dangerous.  How do identify which aspect of the material is causing the problem, so you can go about fixing it?

Or imagine someone else wants to repeat your work.  Or they want to compare your data with another study.  How do you know that the substance being used in other studies is the same as substance X, and not simply a crude approximation?

The scenario is somewhat hypothetical, but the issues are very real.  And they have dogged the field of nanotoxicology for over a decade. Read the rest of this entry »

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Taking a fresh look at nanomaterials

November 11, 2008

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report on Novel Materials

Imagine for one naïve moment that we have a pretty good handle on managing the environmental impact of existing manufactured “stuff”.  Then someone comes along and invents some “new stuff” that behaves very differently from the “old stuff.”

How can we be sure that the frameworks and mechanisms in place for preventing harm to the environment will work for the new stuff?  And where they are strained to breaking point, how do we go about fixing the system?

These are two questions addressed in a new report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution—an independent British standing body established in 1970 to advise the Queen, government, Parliament and the public on environmental issues… Read the rest of this entry »


Value-added nanotechnology

September 3, 2008

Amidst the cacophony of debate swirling around the true meaning of nanotechnology, I head a voice or reason last week.  The voice was that of Dr. Bernd Sachweh of BASF, speaking at the European Aerosol Conference in Thessoloniki.

I paraphrase, but the essence of Bernd’s point was this:

‘Nano’ is not a thing or a product.  It has no intrinsic value.  Rather, ‘nano’ adds value; it changes the properties and the worth of something that already exists.

I must confess, I rather like the idea of ‘nano’ as adding value, rather than being an entity in and of itself.  It’s hard to come up with of an example where engineering something at the nanoscale leads to behaviour or functionality that is independent of the starting material.  Rather, the great potential of nanotechnology would seem to be in taking raw materials and engineering them in ways that lead to the emergence of novel scale-related properties, which can then be used in new and innovative ways. 

But what I really like about the concept of added-value is that it provides insight into how nanotechnology might be approached from an oversight perspective.   Read the rest of this entry »


Smart materials; smart choices?

May 31, 2008

Why nano?  Why care?  For non-nanotech initiates, an obsession with nanotechnology must sometimes seem a bizarre occupation of the sad and lonely.  And even within the nanotechnology community, who hasn’t had occasional doubts over the legitimacy of singling out “nano” as something special?  Yet occasionally a piece of work comes along that helps put things back into perspective.  For me, a paper just published on-line in the journal Nano Letters did exactly that. Read the rest of this entry »


Nano-silver: Looking a little tarnished?

May 2, 2008

The author Neal Stephenson got it wrong—at least, if this week’s nano-news is anything to go by!   In his landmark 1995 novel “The Diamond Age,” Stephenson described a future built on nano-innovation.  But thirteen years later, nanotechnology seems to be ushering in “The Silver Age.”  And to some it’s looking a little tarnished.

First we had Cal Baier-Anderson’s entry on the Environmental Defence Fund nanotech blog, calling claims that bacteria cannot develop resistance to silver “not only false, but dangerous.”  Two days later, the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) filed a petition with the USEPA requesting the agency regulate nano-silver products as pesticides.  And to top it all, Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss completed the hat trick with a story on nano-silver in Friday’s edition of the paper. Read the rest of this entry »