Small Particles, Big Safety Questions

Nanotechnology draws regulators’ attention


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Have you ever heard of gray goo? The term was first used by molecular nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation to describe a possible doomsday scenario in which out-of-control, self-replicating nanomachines essentially destroy all life on Earth.

The notion has since been expounded upon by other writers in both science fiction and more serious works. But how likely is such a scenario?

According to the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN; Brooklyn, NY), not very.

“A gray goo robot would face a much harder task than merely replicating itself,” the Center says on its Web site (www.crnano.org). “It would also have to survive in the environment, move around, and convert what it finds into raw materials and power... None of these functions would be part of a molecular manufacturing system.”

In another document on the Center’s site, Drexler now says he regrets even coining the term. And, in the finishing industry, gray goo is even less a concern than it is in the world of molecular nanotechnology, in which nanodevices are built from the bottom up—literally an atom or molecule at a time.

As described in our Special Report on Nanotechnology in Coatings beginning on page 23, suppliers of coating materials are taking a different approach, using nanoparticles as additions to coating materials and developing novel ways to, for example, make plated surfaces with nano-size metallic grains.

Still, such materials present their own potential hazards, and researchers and companies working with nanotechnology must protect workers and the environment by developing safe procedures for handling nanomaterials, according to Jamil Baghdachi, director of the Coatings Research Institute at Eastern Michigan University (Ypsilanti, MI).

“We must be cautious with nanomaterials,” Baghdachi says. “Part of our work must be figuring out how to use them safely.”

Baghdachi points out that many hazardous and even deadly chemicals are used every day in industrial processes, yet we have developed safe procedures for their use. “One of the most hazardous chemicals around is sodium cyanide,” he says. “Just touch it and you’re dead. But it is used in plating and in other applications, and we’ve learned how to use it safely.”

There’s no question that nanomaterials present potential safety and environmental issues. Just as their minuscule size—on the order of one-billionth of a meter—may enable novel properties in coatings and other applications, so it presents a challenge to scientists trying to determine their possible effects on human health and the environment.

Rest assured, concerns about worker and environmental safety have not escaped the attention of federal regulators. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently published and opened for public comment a concept paper for its Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program (NMSP).

The paper encourages manufacturers, users, and importers of nanomaterials to participate in a voluntary program that attempts to jump start responsible development of nanotechnology by implementing an EH&S risk management program, and by submitting nanotech-related information for use in EPA’s future regulatory decisions.

At an August meeting of more than 150 attendees, comments on the idea from nanomaterial manufacturers, chemical associations and business interests were generally positive. Representatives from environmental and consumer groups, however, were more skeptical, criticizing the time required to develop the program, its lack of compliance deadlines and it voluntary nature.

Such groups might be wise to consider their actions. Through their involvement with NASF, many platers have learned the value of engagement with EPA and other regulatory agencies. Maybe it’s time environmental and consumer protection groups tried the same approach.

Nanotechnology, with its huge potential up-side, would be a good place to start.