Category: Carbon nanotubes

On Monday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety released new data on the potential role multi-walled carbon nanotubes play as a cancer-promoter – a substance that promotes the development of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.  In the study, mice were injected with methylcholanthrene – a cancer initiating agent – and subsequently exposed to airborne multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Compared to a control group, the methylcholanthrene and carbon nanotube-exposed mice were significantly more likely to develop tumors than a control group, developed more tumors, and developed larger tumors.  The study provides a strong indication that this particular form of carbon nanotube material can synergistically increase the likelihood and severity of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.

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A guest blog by John Dorr, Vice President of Business Development Nanocomp Technologies Inc. Despite all the fuss over nanotechnology, it’s surprisingly difficult to get a clear sense of how the technology is contributing to new products.  So when the company Nanocomp Technologies Inc. approached me with an idea of writing a guest blog about what they are doing with carbon nanotubes, I jumped at the chance.  I’ve been aware of Nanocomp’s business for some time now and know the company’s President and CEO Peter Antionette, and have been both impressed and intrigued by their use of carbon nanotube sheets and yarns.  At the same time, I didn’t want 2020 Science turning into an industry PR conduit.  So I agreed to the guest blog with one condition – that it stick to science and technology, and not turn into a corporate publicity piece.  As it turns out, John Dorr’s piece is about as far from the hype that often accompanies nanotech stories as you can get. At the same time, this is clearly a significant and potentially important technology – one to watch I think.  Andrew Maynard In the early 1990’s, a new form of carbon was discovered with highly unusual properties – it was strong, light, and conducted electricity and heat exceptionally well. Because the material was formed from incredibly thin tubes of carbon atoms, it rapidly became know as carbon nanotubes – or CNT for short. Since their discovery, researchers and businesses have been working hard to exploit the unusual properties of carbon nanotubes – not as easy a task as many people initially thought. However, new and commercially viable uses for the material are now beginning to emerge.

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Ten years ago at the close of the 20th century, people the world over were obsessing about the millennium bug – an unanticipated glitch arising from an earlier technology.  I wonder how clear it was then that, despite this storm in what turned out to be a rather small teacup, the following decade would see unprecedented advances in technology – the mapping of the human genome, social media, nanotechnology, space-tourism, face transplants, hybrid cars, global communications, digital storage, and more.  Looking back, it’s clear that despite a few hiccups, emerging technologies are on a roll – one that’s showing no sign of slowing down. So what can we expect as we enter the second decade of the twenty first century?  What are the emerging technology trends that are going to be hitting the headlines over the next ten years? Here’s my list of the top ten technologies I think are worth watching. I’m afraid that, as with all crystal ball gazing, it’s bound to be flawed. Yet as I work on the opportunities and challenges of emerging technologies, these do seem to be areas that are ripe for prime time.

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Just a quick post (at least, as far as the text goes). Last week, I had the pleasure of appearing on Twit TV’s Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour with Kristen Sanford and Leo Laporte. The conversation covered nanotechnology from every conceivable angle. I should have known with Leo’s opening question – asking what I thought of Eric Drexler’s ideas – that we were in for a fun ride! As Kiki and Leo managed to get in a whole bunch of questions about what nanotech is (and isn’t), where and how it’s being used, what’s so great about it, and what some of the possible barriers to it’s development are, I thought it worth posting the show here. I should warn you, it’s long, running just shy of 70 minutes. The full show can be streamed below. But for anyone who wants to fast forward through the boring bits or watch it at their leisure, it can also be downloaded here. [Quicktime, 199 MB] [flashvideo file=/movies/20090702/0625-kiki8-e2.flv image=movies/20090702/0625-kiki8-e2.jpg width=480 height=320 /] The show was recorded by the folks at On Demand Twit Video, and is reproduced here under the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada Creatives Commons license: Team ODTV / CC BY-NC-SA 2.5

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Back in April, the folks at the PBS station THIRTEEN asked me to answer 13 questions on nanotechnology and the environment for their website feature Green Thirteen.   The questions ended up covering most of nanotechnology – what it is, what it’s good for, what the downsides might be, and how we might overcome potential problems to use it effectively.  With this in mind, I thought it worth posting the Q&A here as a brief nanotechnology primer…

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Reading yesterday’s New York Times, it seems China could well be poised to leapfrog the West in advanced battery technology (China Vies to Be World’s Leader in Electric Cars). According to the article, Chinese leaders have adopted a plan aimed at turning the country into one of the leading producers of hybrid and all-electric vehicles within three years, and making it the world leader in electric cars and buses after that. If they deliver the goods, the economic ramifications will be significant.  But then so will the resulting breakthroughs in battery technology. Despite our ever-increasing addiction to battery-powered gizmos, current technologies are seriously limited.  My laptop and cell-phone (and this morning, my e-book) constantly seem to die at most inopportune moments.  And remembering to recharge the 1001 things in my life that depend on batteries (while working out which recharger goes with which device) is a time-suck I could easily live without. No question, personal electronics are desperately in need of a major battery upgrade. But that’s small fry compared to the challenges of developing usable batteries for power-hungry cars. The problem is, it’s hard to get electricity into batteries fast; hard to get it out again; and once you’ve got a lot of it in there, hard to prevent the battery having a melt-down—remember the stories of igniting/exploding PC batteries?  These are tractable problems for the small stuff—cell phones and the like—but they present enormous obstacles to scaling up batteries large enough to power cars. Yet developing battery-powered cars makes a lot of sense…

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I’m looking at an electron microscope image of a carbon nanotube – as I cannot show it here, you’ll have to imagine it.  It shows a long, straight, multi-walled carbon nanotube, around 100 nanometers wide and 10 micrometers long.  There is nothing particularly unusual about this.  What is unusual is that the image also shows a section of the lining of a mouse’s lung.  And the nanotube is sticking right through the lining, like a needle through a swatch of felt. The image was shown at the annual Society of Toxicology meeting in Baltimore last week, and comes from a new study by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on the impact of inhaled multi-walled carbon nanotubes on mice. It’s highly significant because it takes scientists a step closer to understanding whether carbon nanotubes that look like harmful asbestos fibers, could cause asbestos-like disease…

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So you want to make or use carbon nanotubes, but you are worried about handling then safely.  What do you do?  The good news is that the UK Health and Safety Executive has just published an information sheet that addresses just this question.  Risk management of carbon nanotubes is (according to the blurb) “specifically about the manufacture and manipulation of carbon nanotubes, and has been prepared in response to emerging evidence about the toxicology of these materials.” But is it any good?  Here’s my initial take:

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I’m afraid the “A” word just won’t go away.  It seems that every time people start thinking about the possible health effects of long, thin, fibrous nanomaterials, the question pops up “is this the next asbestos?”  You’d have thought that the issue would have been resolved by now—after all, nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes have been around for some time.  But as the years go by the question persists, and the answer remains elusive.  I’d like to say that this isn’t for want of trying, but sadly there hasn’t been that much interest in funding the right research so far. This blog was prompted by the recent publication of a report assessing the state of knowledge on fiber-like nanoparticles and their potential health impacts.  The report, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK and prepared/published by the Institute for Occupational Medicine (IOM), addresses whether “High Aspect Ratio Nanoparticles” (aka “HARN”) should raise the same health concerns as asbestos fibres.  Here we go again you might say—and indeed the report covers a lot of old ground.  Yet repetitive as the messages might be, the reality is that this is an issue which remains far from being resolved, and could cost some sectors of the nanotechnology industry dearly if clear information and safe working guidelines aren’t forthcoming soon. To be honest, the report is not an easy read—it was prepared as a report to a government department, and reads as a report to government department.  In other words, it’s not that accessible to anyone outside the immediate target audience.  Nevertheless, it does contain critical information on how this specific class of engineered nanomaterials should be approached if it is to be used safely and successfully. I’ll get to the report’s key points in a moment.  But

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A nanotechnology fix for high-end audio addicts? I’m sitting at my computer watching a surreal balletic movie—a sheet of highly aligned carbon nanotubes is being slowly stretched, then allowed to slowly contract.  In the background is a soundtrack of traditional-sounding Chinese music. At least I think the soundtrack is over-dubbed, until I realize that the music is coming directly from the nanotube sheet itself, which has been attached to a small amplifier. And it suddenly dawns on me that I am watching something rather special—perhaps the biggest breakthrough in loudspeaker technology in decades…

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Twelve months ago today I held a bag of multi-walled carbon nanotubes up before a hearing of the U.S. House Science Committee.  I wanted to emphasize the discrepancy between the current state of the science on carbon nanotubes, and a tendency to classify this substance as the relatively benign material graphite from a safety perspective.  So it is perhaps fitting that on the anniversary of that congressional hearing, the US Environmental Protection Agency is making it clear that carbon nanotubes are in fact, a new substance—and should be regulated as such.

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Mix carbon nanotubes and asbestos together (metaphorically) and you get an explosive mix—at least if news coverage of the latest publication coming out of Professor Ken Donaldson’s team is anything to go by.  The research—published on-line today in Nature Nanotechnology—is the first to explicitly test the hypothesis that long carbon nanotubes behave like long asbestos fibres in the body. In brief, the study (which I was a co-author on) used an established method to test whether a fibrous material has the potential to lead to the disease mesothelioma—a cancer of the outer lining of the lungs that can take decades to develop following exposure.  In the method, samples of material are injected into the abdominal space of mice, where inflammation and the formation of granulomas in the lining tissue (the mesothelium) are studied over a seven-day period.  Previous research has established that the combined presence of fibres, inflammation and granulomas is a very strong indicator that mesothelioma will occur in the long-term.  While the method uses lining of the abdominal space, it is highly predictive of what happens in the same tissue surrounding the lungs, if it is exposed to durable fibres.

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2020 Science is the personal blog of Andrew Maynard - Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. More ... 

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