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Responsible Nanotechnology: Looking Beyond the Good News

Written by Vicki Colvin, Director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, Rice University

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Editor's Note: Nanotechnology has a glowing reputation as the platform for 21st century technology, but what about its potential environmental impacts? Despite moving full speed ahead on nanomaterial development and applications, researchers have been slow to consider the possible risks of this emerging technology. In this essay, Dr. Colvin discusses why a frank look at environmental impact and risk assessment will boost the odds of nanotechnology's long-term commercial success and public acceptance.

For the past decade, nanotechnologists have basked in the glow of positive public opinion. We've wowed the public with our ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level and with grand visions of how we might use this ability. All this "good news" has created a growing perception among business and government leaders that nanotechnology is a powerful platform for twenty-first century technologies. While this good news has given nanotechnology its start—with unprecedented levels of focused government funding—nanotechnology's legacy will be determined in the months ahead, when nanoscientists and the public confront the inevitable 'bad news' about nanotechnology.

One of the aims of Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) is to look beyond the good news and precisely characterize the unintended consequences of nanotechnology, particularly in the environmental arena. As one of the six nanoscience and engineering centers funded by the National Science Foundation, CBEN has a mandate to clear major roadblocks to nanotechnology commercialization. As the only center funded under the National Nanotechnology Initiative that focuses exclusively on environmental and biological systems, we are developing ways to use nanotechnology to clean our environment and improve public health.

Porous membrane manufactured with nanoscale control over pore size and configuration. CBEN is investigating these and similar materials for water filtration and other environmental engineering applications, as well as for bone replacement.
Image Credit: Vicki Colvin

In these efforts, CBEN shares in the good news of nanotechnology. Our researchers' efforts in nanofiltration have created entirely new approaches to faster and more effective water treatment. Our bioengineers have formed new types of biologically active nanoparticles that enable external light to be harnessed within the human body for applications ranging from drug delivery to cancer therapies. CBEN's tissue engineers create nanoscale sponges that can offer a responsive and degradable replacement for injured bone. This work has gone a long way towards overcoming technical roadblocks in developing products based on nanotechnology.

Not all roadblocks for nanotechnology are technical, however; as has been seen recently in the case of "frankenfoods." The public's enthusiasm for an emerging new technology can easily turn to fear, with grave consequences for commercialization. Emerging technologies do pose risks that are ill-characterized, and the best thing nanoscientists can do—both for the discipline and society—is draw attention to possible risks and study them carefully.

Where's the Risk in Nanomaterials?

At CBEN, we consider the environmental impact and health effects of nanomaterials, the core pieces of nanotechnology. This interest came about quite naturally in CBEN as the work of our medical engineers in forming biologically active nanostructures was juxtaposed with the efforts of our environmental engineers to remove particle wastes. The small size and unique properties of nanomaterials make them valuable in medicine, and we reasoned that these same features might make some nanomaterials active in unusual ways within the environment.

A sampling of the possible pathways a nanomaterial might follow in the environment. Understanding how these pathways work for nanomaterials is key to predicting their environmental impact.
Please click here for an enlarged image.
Image Credit: Vicki Colvin

In a field with more than 12,000 citations a year, we were stunned to discover no prior research in developing nanomaterials risk assessment models and no toxicology studies devoted to synthetic nanomaterials. Thus, much of our early efforts in environmental nanotechnology have been devoted to designing experiments, building new teams, and refining our hypotheses. In the short period since CBEN was formed in September 2001, some experimental results are beginning to take shape.

For instance, CBEN researcher Mark Wiesner is leading the effort to evaluate exposure issues for nanomaterials in water. In considering the fate and transport of nanomaterials, he has shown that nanomaterials can move with great speeds through aquifers and soil, and he has confirmed a quantitative model for use in risk assessment. As expected, nanomaterials provide a large and active surface for sorbing smaller contaminants, such as cadmium and organics. Thus, like naturally occurring colloids they could provide an avenue for rapid and long-range transport of waste in underground water. Other preliminary results are equally interesting. Though typically highly crystalline inorganic solids, fullerene nanomaterials may be susceptible to biodegradation, a factor that controls their long-term persistence in the environment. These data when taken together provide the inputs for developing exposure guidelines, the first element of quantitative risk assessment.

Equally important for risk assessment is the effect nanomaterials have on living systems: what happens to organisms when they are exposed intentionally to model nanomaterials? Based on studies of naturally occurring nanoscale particles such as ultrafine particle aerosols and surgical wear debris from implants, we can speculate that nanoscale inorganic matter is not generally biologically inert. However, without hard data that specifically addresses the issues of synthetic nanomaterials, it is impossible to know what physiological effects will occur, and more critically, what exposure levels to recommend.

To answer these questions with the most rigorous and complete data, CBEN is building partnerships with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Within a few years, this work will lead to general models concerning the toxicology of several major classes of nanomaterials, providing the second element for risk assessment models.

Building Commercial and Public Trust

CBEN's work alone is not sufficient for the scope of these issues; it is critical that more organizations and people devote time and money to these questions so the nanoscience community can develop an accurate picture of nano-environmental impact. This will be a challenge in the current climate. Of the $700 million in funding for the National Nanotechnology Initiative in fiscal year 2003, less than $500,000 is devoted to the study of environmental impact. It is difficult to convince scientists, or funding managers, to support environmental impact studies. The immediate payback for research that demonstrates ways of using nanomaterials to cure disease, for example, is greater than the reward for uncovering the fact that a nanomaterial may cause disease.

This low investment in environmental nanotechnology research also creates problems for the fledgling nanotechnology industry. The legal and regulatory landscape plays a crucial role in defining the pace for any new technology. Companies investing in the nanotechnology sector need to handicap what this landscape will look like for nanotechnology and plan their business strategies accordingly.

Firm data on health impacts and a quantitative and general risk assessment model is thus a necessity for commercialization. Indeed, for an industry that is already producing thousands of tons of nanomaterials each year—for applications ranging from cosmetics to solar cells—the importance of characterizing potential environmental impacts seems evident. Rather than alarm investors, such information (whatever its conclusions) will be reassuring and increase the likelihood that viable nanotechnology products are developed.

Perhaps most important, hard data on the environmental effects of nanomaterials would also go a long way in building the public's trust. Recent news coverage of genetically modified foods, for example, points to a great dichotomy of the human race: we are both fearful and curious about the unknown. Science is the embodiment of our curiosity, and the nanoscience community has a responsibility to ask the hard questions about nanomaterials before the public forces it to answer. Not only are nanoscientists best positioned to clearly answer the questions surrounding the potential environmental and health effects of nanomaterials, we also have the most to lose from unfounded fear of the unknown.

Nanotechnology has a unique opportunity in the history of technology: this could be the first platform technology that introduces a culture of social sensitivity and environmental awareness early in the lifecycle of technology development. At CBEN, we do this by constantly questioning the ultimate value of our exciting new technologies, and actively building programs to collect hard data on the environmental impact of nanomaterials. We invite others to join us in researching the potential ill effects of nanotechnology—a pursuit that will benefit both the discipline and the public.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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