Science Wednesday: Big Ideas in Tiny Particles

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By Phil Sayre
You may have heard of nanotechnology, but then again, maybe you haven’t.  Despite the ubiquity of nanotechnology—it is now widely used in products ranging from clothing (which incorporates bacteria-fighting nano silver) and sunscreen, to nanoengineered batteries, fuel cells and catalytic converters—many people don’t know what it is or why it’s important.

It’s easy to discount the impacts of nanotechnology because we don’t see nanoparticles.  They are really small.  In fact, a nanometer is a mere one billionth of a meter.  If that doesn’t give you a visual, here are some examples of what I mean:
•    A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
•    There are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch
•    A human hair is approximately 80,000 nanometers wide.

Despite their diminutive nature, nanomaterials have global impact.  Research funds for nanotechnology have steadily increased over the past decade to over $10 Billion USD per year worldwide!

The U.S. government’s efforts to assess the potential risks of nanotechnology are coordinated by the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a collaborative project comprised of 25 agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Environment and Health Sciences, National Institute of Health, and others. The NNI is also cooperating with the European Commission to conduct environmental, health and safety research (for more, see: http://us-eu.org).
The big question about nanotechnology is not whether we can benefit from the technology, but whether we can ensure the technology is as safe as possible.

Over the next three years, the EPA will be working to design a number of new tools that will make it much easier for manufacturers and consumers to recognize the safety or danger of certain nanomaterials.  We also plan to provide solutions and alternatives to the way nanomaterials are produced in order to make their production greener in the near future.
As we collect more data on nanoparticles, we can better understand how to use nanotechnology in sustainable, healthy ways.  Nanomaterials are excellent tools for efficiency and sustainability, and every year we become more and more adept at using those tools to make our world a better place.

Attending the Society of Toxicology Conference in San Francisco this week?  Be sure to attend the Nano Workshop on March 13 (2:45pm – 3:45pm) that will summarize U.S and E.U. Nanotechnology research programs.

About the author: Phil Sayre is the Deputy National Program Director for the Chemical Safety for Sustainability Research Program.

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