Nanotechnology, regulation and the environment
aROAR Particles Ltd, Chief Executive Officer
I am sure I am not alone in getting a real buzz from the new developments in nanoscience and technology generated around the world.
This growth in knowledge and understanding often leads to some strikingly novel ideas around new products and processes that have the potential to have a significant impact on the world we live in. There is one common aspect that links all these ideas together: they are all based around the development and application of new materials. Materials are the building blocks that enable everything else to operate and thrive. Often having the right materials available is taken for granted, particularly by non-scientists, but understanding how to make a material, what its properties are and how it behaves under different conditions are essential for using it to provide the functionality that the product designers require. For example the demands of internet users are dependent on the chips in the servers that depend on increasing advances in electronic materials technology at the nanoscale. It is difficult enough doing this for materials that we know exceedingly well, when we are doing this for new materials it is not only extremely challenging but also very exciting. Nanotechnology and nanomaterials are at the forefront of technology.
Although there is a great deal of fascination with these advances in materials science, ultimately the materials need to be incorporated into products that will sell and generate wealth. Whether a product is successful depends on many things, but with a ground breaking new technology like nanotechnology there is an additional element that is also required: public and regulatory acceptance. This is primarily focused on the health and safety of the materials and products including the environmental impact. Some materials are wonderful at a particular task but are not acceptable due to their environmental impact. The public acceptance of new technologies, and through implication their success or failure, can be heavily influenced by the results of the many independent reviews that take place. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), a highly influential body, has recently published its report1 into novel materials in the environment.
The report from the RCEP has been two and a half years in gestation and should be essential reading to anyone in the nanotechnology business. There is a very significant aspect to the report that emphasises the role that nanotechnology has and will increasingly play in the future. The original remit for the Commission was to investigate novel materials and applications, which is an extremely broad field and in fact was too wide ranging for anything of value to emerge. The Commission therefore split this into four areas; crosscutting technologies, including nanotechnology, surface engineering and materials processing; advanced functional materials; sustainable chemistry and finally structural materials. Over 100 organisations and individuals submitted evidence or provided information, but the pertinent fact is that overwhelmingly the topic of nanomaterials dominated, to the extent that the Commission focused entirely on nanomaterials as a specific example of the issues around new emerging technologies.
The report has crystallised many of the issues surrounding nanotechnology and has identified several key priorities that should have a significant influence on anyone involved in developing nanomaterials based products. A fundamental recommendation for regulators to take note of is that it is the properties and functionalities of specific nanomaterials that are the key rather than treating all materials in a size range as a single class of materials. This is very important and recognition of this point is very significant. It allows the differentiation between materials that are used and have properties that may be considered as ‘passive’ such as bulk fillers in polymers and those that have functionality directly as a consequence of their size, such as quantum dots. There have been calls from some lobby groups for a one-size-fits-all approach and hence a moratorium on nanomaterials. The recognition of the RCEP that this is wrong should go some way towards finally quelling such voices.
The second major conclusion of the report that will have an impact on the use of nanomaterials is that regarding regulation as a whole. There have been many calls for increased regulation and even specific regulation to control nanotechnology. The Commission has concluded that the existing framework of regulation is sufficient and with adaptations should be capable of dealing with the use of nanomaterials. Industry already needs to meet a considerable amount of regulation and this recognition will allow industry to continue to develop materials and products while maintaining the flexibility to strengthen the regulations if evidence emerges that they need to do so.
The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report in 2004 set out a number of the challenges that faced the nanotechnology community including how to define nanoscience and nanotechnology and what controls might be required as the industry expands. This report from the RCEP has addressed some of these questions and provided a balanced set of views and opinions. It has proposed through its recommendations a practical way forward for industry, regulators and academia. It might not please everyone with an interest in nanotechnology, and no doubt the debates and discussions will continue unabated, as is right and proper, but for many directly involved it is a welcome report.