Nanotechnologies: Where should they take us? Have your say

What is it about?

Things you might be interested to know about nano…

  • What Are nanotechnologies?

    Nanotechnologies mean ‘engineering at a very small scale’. They can be applied to many areas such as health and medicine, information and communication technologies and energy and the environment. Nanotechnologies work at the nanoscale- the scale of single molecules.

  • Why should I care about nanotechnologies?

    Nanotechnologies are likely to be used very widely. Some predict unimaginably small computer chips or tiny machines that find and fix damaged arteries inside our bodies. Nanotechnologies could make our energy cleaner, our lives longer, and improve many existing technologies. And they are already appearing. More than 1,000 products using nanomaterials are already on the market.

  • What is a nanometre?

    Picture source: nanoyou.eu

    A nanometre is one billionth (10 -9) of a meter, meaning 0.000 000 001 meters or a millionth of a millimetre.
    In other words: One nanometre is to an apple what an apple is to the Earth.

    Nanotechnologies deal with materials having dimensions in the range of nanometres, approximately between 1 and 100 nm. This range is called the nanoscale.

    Picture source: nanoyou.eu

  • What is special about things on a nanoscale?

    Picture source: wikipedia

    At the nanoscale materials that we are familiar with can show new properties. For example," a sheet of aluminium foil is a handy way to keep your sandwiches fresh until lunchtime. But if you take that same aluminium and grind it into smaller and smaller pieces, when they become very, very tiny (nanosize in fact) something odd happens – they become extremely reactive. Even explosive! This makes aluminium nanoparticles great for putting in rocket fuel, but probably not something you want near your lunch!"

    Example source: what makes nano special? (Nano and me  by Hilary Sutcliffe)

     

  • Natural Nanomaterials

    Picture source: nano.ort.org.il

    Many living things make use of phenomena that depend on structures with nanometer dimensions. So a gecko walking on the ceiling, leaves that repel water, the bold colors of butterflies, and strong and flexible materials like cobwebs are all using natural nanotechnologies.

    As well as nanoparticles produced by living things, some are created by natural events like erosion or volcanic eruptions. Some types of chemical reaction, especially combustion, produce them, too.

    We also know that people have been exposed to some forms of nanoparticles already in some consumer products. For instance, the mineral titanium dioxide - used as a whitener in toothpaste and in food colour - contains a fraction of nanoparticles. They are not put there deliberately, but are part of the normal composition of the mineral, like different sized sand grains.

  • Are nanotechnologies something new?

    Although scientists have investigated matter at the nanoscale for many years, within physics and chemistry, it was not until a new generation of microscopes were invented in the 1980s at IBM's lab in Switzerland that atoms and molecules could be directly visualised and manipulated. This opened the door to the systematic investigation of nanomaterials and the realisation that their exceptional properties could be used to build innovative materials and devices. Often nanomaterials seen in nature are used as an inspiration for engineering innovative ones! For these reasons many researchers feel that nanoscience is not a revolution, rather an evolution of more traditional scientific disciplines, but nanotechnologies might have some revolutionary implications for our society, in terms of applications or tools that they will enable.

  • How could nanotechnologies change our lives in the future?

    In the last decades our lives have changed dramatically through the use of electronic devices. Think how cell phones have changed in the last 20 years. Nanotechnologies have played an important role in making these devices progressively smaller, more efficient and multi-functional. In the future, our lives could change through many technology innovations, such as:

    • Circulating drugs that can be externally-activated and controlled; they could collect data and send it to the doctor in order to adjust therapy (theranostics).
    • Nano-sized drug carriers to target cancer cells
    • Skin "tattoos" that monitor salts and other metabolite levels and alert athletes or diabetic people.
    • Shoes or clothing with sensors that collect data as a person trains.
    • Energy-harvesting integrated systems (in textiles, shoes, etc) that harvest solar & mechanical energy to charge electronic devices.
    • Flexible and transparent solar panels integrated on windows, tiles, etc. with high solar conversion efficiency.
    • Surfaces and textiles that remove nitrogen oxides and other smog related gasses from urban air.
    • Smart food packaging that has sensors to detect spoilage, contamination and has a tracking/communication system to alert the producer and retailer.

    Picture source: nanoyou.eu

  • Are there health risks involved with nanotechnologies?

    Any emerging technology may be associated with unknown health risks when it first reaches consumers. Think for instance of mobile technology: the health risk of using mobile phones emerged after years of using them and even now this risk is not fully understood. Despite this, we use them routinely. The safety of nanotechnologies has been in the spotlight for years now, prompted by several civil society organizations, as well as National Scientific Academies that have raised safety concerns and demanded early actions to ensure responsible development of nanotechnologies. The common desire is to ensure this technology can progress while at the same time making sure workers and consumers are not exposed to risk.

    Which risk? Nanotechnologies use nanoscale materials, which are extremely small, hence there is concern they could harm humans by crossing protection barriers, like the skin, and cause damage to the body. For instance sunscreens containing nanomaterials have been in the spotlight. However, so far the body of scientific evidence shows that the nanoparticles themselves do not penetrate the skin. More generally, so far we don’t have evidence of consumer products containing nanomaterials being harmful to consumers. However research continues to check and detect any toxicity of materials at the nanoscale, especially for those products that come into direct contact with the body.

    Are there risks for the environment?

    All products when they reach the end of their lifespan become waste. One question citizens and researchers ask is: do nanomaterials contained in nanotech products produce harmful effects once they reach landfill? Could these waste residues interfere with animal and plants, and produce harmful effects? These are complex questions, and finding answers requires time. A lot of research is being conducted worldwide. Scientists are also considering whether there are safety problems when washing items like clothes that contain nanomaterials. Some civil organizations argue that consumer products containing nanomaterials should not be commercialised until these questions are fully answered. Others argue that we have already lived with lots of natural nanoparticles in the environment, in nature and in pollution. Nanoparticles are not something entirely new and even if we should be doing more research on safety, we should try not to put too many obstacles to the advancement of this field of research.

  • What about the law: how are nanotechnologies regulated?

    So far, there aren’t specific regulations in the EC for nanomaterials. The official position, after several revisions and assessments, is that nanomaterials are well covered by current regulations. Nanomaterials are treated like any other chemical, which must comply with a set of regulations in order to be used in consumer products and industrial processes. However some civil organizations demand specific regulation of nanomaterials, on the basis that nanomaterials have special properties that require special attention. At this stage there isn’t a law that forces industries to state in the label of their products if they contain nanomaterials, with the exception of cosmetics and foodstuffs, which must indicate this in ingredient lists. (starting 2014).

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About nanopinion

  • nanopinion is an EC-funded project bringing together 17 partners from 11 countries with the aim of monitoring public opinion on what we hope from innovation with nanotechnologies. The project is aimed citizens with a special focus on hard-to-reach target groups, which are people who do not normally encounter and give their opinion nanotechnologies at first hand.
  • Dialogue is facilitated online and in outreach events in 30 countries presenting different participatory formats.
  • To promote an informed debate, we also run a strong press & social media campaign and offer a repository with more than 150 resources.
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