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Posted: Mar 27, 2015

Nanotechnology materials: opportunities and challenges go hand in hand

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Novel materials designed and fabricated with the help of nanotechnologies offer the promise of radical technological development. Many of these will improve our quality of life, and develop our economies, but all will be measured against the overarching principle that we do not make some error, and harm ourselves and our environment by exposure to new forms of hazard.
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A publication by the European Commission – "Nanomaterials' functionality"; free pdf download) explores recent developments in nanomaterials research, and possibilities for safe, practical and resource-efficient applications.

The publication is a collection of 12 articles that highlight how nanotechnology is radically changing areas like energy harvesting and storage or make a better, cleaner and safer environment. However diverse, all the articles share a common theme – the key enabling properties are a result of the manipulation of structure at the nanoscale.

No matter how positive some of these developments are, it is also necessary that questions should be asked about engineered nanoparticles and how they interact with us, and whether they could lead to unforeseen hazards.

As Professor Kenneth Dawson, Director, Centre For BioNano Interactions (CBNI) School of Chemistry and Chemical Biology University College Dublin, Ireland wrote the publications' guest editorial and he reflects on two key lessons regarding nanosafety:

"Progressive and incremental product development in industry required colloidal particles, one thousand times smaller than a millimetre, to be made even smaller. Thus did, almost accidently and imperceptibly, the evolution of nanoparticles driven by product optimisation merge with the growing flood of highly innovative nanomaterials research.
"Thereby the concept of nanosafety in its broader context becomes almost synonymous with the safety of the evolved (and smaller) ‘legacy’ materials, many of them long in use. The future will view this accidental convergence as a temporary confusion in what nanotechnology is, and what it will become. Succinctly put, the recent past, derived mostly from experience with legacy materials, will not be a good guide to the future. This is well illustrated by the papers presented here, that go far beyond optimisation, and hint at changing markets.
"A second set of confusions will also prove to be transient. The initial excitement about nano-innovation also stimulated unfocused fears of widespread ‘nano-hazards’, and these, combined with early poorly framed toxicological studies, left policymakers alert but with bewildering advice. These confusions are being resolved, at least partially. In fact, extensive experimental data now suggest that (most) nanomaterials in current use possess an acute toxicity no greater than might be expected from their bulk counterparts. Those that are toxic (or ‘poisonous’ in this acute sense) are easily identified, sometimes deriving their toxicity from being soluble."
Dawson points out that substantive longer-term questions remain to be understood in this arena of nanosafety, and it will be well to focus the energy, talent and resources on those.
"Firstly, some may bioaccumulate, and their final degradation, fate and impact on the animate and inanimate environment is a key question yet to be extensively investigated. Secondly, we have only begun to see the range and variety of materials that will one day enter markets. Indeed, history will barely notice the role of existing colloidal materials made smaller. All our knowledge and experience suggests (and the current papers hint) that it is really novel nano-structural objects (potentially even of similar materials) that, in future, will constitute a nano-enabled technology market. Within the plethora of what is to come, there could exist the potential for novel hazards, both acute and long-term. We will need to guard against that."
Here is a brief summary of the 12 articles included in the EC publication:
Pomegranate-inspired battery design doubles stored energy
New research has developed a battery with an anode made from ‘silicon pomegranates’, which doubles the amount of energy that can be stored compared to a standard carbon anode.
Making nano-scale manufacturing eco-friendly with silk
Nanolithography - a way of making finely detailed patterns or structures, such as those found in advanced computer microchips - uses toxic and corrosive chemicals. New research shows that these could be replaced with eco-friendly silk proteins and water.
Low energy water purification enabled by nanomaterial-coated sponges
A low cost, low-energy method to disinfect water using electricity has been developed by researchers by combining carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and silver nanowires with existing materials.
New quantum dot process could lead to super-efficient lightproducing technology
Researchers may have found a way to directly produce polarised light using tiny nanostructures, called quantum dots, opening the way for more energy-efficient technologies.
Solar cell efficiency boosted with pine tree-like nanotube needle
New research reveals how the efficiency of ‘dye-sensitised solar cells’ (an alternative to traditional silicon photovoltaic (PV) solar cells) can be doubled by using pine tree-shaped nanotubes.
Nanotechnology cuts costs and improves efficiency ofphotovoltaic cells
The most effective ways that nanostructures can improve the efficiency and lower the costs of photovoltaic (PV) solar cells have been summarised in this recent research.
New energy-efficient manufacture of perovskite solar cells that rivals silicon solar cells
Researchers have identified new alternative materials for perovskite solar cells which cut energy demands as they can be produced at low temperatures.
Graphene’s health effects summarised in new guide
A new guide has been published on the known and potential health and safety effects of human exposure to graphene. It is designed to help inform those working with graphene and graphene-based nanomaterials.
Dawson concludes his editorial with the statemnent that there is no room for complacency as far as nanosafety issues are concerened "for we are truly at a scientific frontier, and there may yet be surprises; in safety, failure has a high price. We do not doubt that that nanotechnology truly does have the power to make, and indeed is in the process of, making a better world. And translation into economic benefit, both in terms of making novel products and ensuring that safety, will continue to be a partner. But success will require from innovators, scientists, regulators, policymakers, and all concerned, not just resources, but perhaps even more, depth of thought, commitment, focus and persistence."
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