Category Archives: Nanotechnology

Carbon nanotubes as a potent cancer promoter – new data from NIOSH

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. Continue reading Carbon nanotubes as a potent cancer promoter – new data from NIOSH

Think Design – an alternative take on nanotech (in 11 minutes!)

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a “TED style talk” on nanotechnology for the University of Michigan Environmental Health Sciences department 125th anniversary.  What they got was a short talk on “thinking small”:

The other talks in the series are also worth checking out – covering topics as diverse as epigenetics, cancer, exposure science, obesity, endocrine disruptors, global health and mercury in the environment.  Watch them here:

Carbon nanoparticles could be ubiquitous to many foods

TEM images of carbon particles from foods containing caramelized sugar. Click to see larger image. Source: Palashudding et al.

Nanotechnology leads to novel materials, new exposures and potentially unique health and environmental risks – or so the argument goes.  But an increasing body of research is showing that relatively uniformly sized nanometer scale particles are part and parcel of the environment we live in.  For instance a number of simple organisms such as bacteria and diatoms have the capability to produce nanoparticles, either as part of their natural behavior or under specific conditions.  Nanoscale minerals, it seems, play an important role in shaping the world we live in.  Metals like silver wantonly shed silver nanoparticles into our food and water according to research published last year.  And now a group of researchers have shown that food containing caramelized sugar contains uniformly sized amorphous carbon particles.

This latest paper was published in the journal Science Progress a few weeks ago, and analyzes the carbon nanoparticle content of such everyday foods as bread, caramelized sugar, corn flakes and biscuits.  The authors found that products containing caramelized sugar – including baked goods such as bread – contained spherical carbon nanoparticles in the range 4 – 30 nm (with size being associated with the temperature of caramelization).  This isn’t that surprising as nanoparticle formation is closely associated with hot processes. Continue reading Carbon nanoparticles could be ubiquitous to many foods

Nanoparticles, cosmetics and sunscreens – again!

Robin Erb has a good piece on cosmetics and safe ingredients in the Detroit Free Press this week – it tackles the very limited regulation over what goes into cosmetics, but balances this with a useful perspective on consumer choice and how this in turn can drive business decisions on what is used and how.  I mention it because the issue of nanoparticles in sunscreens comes up briefly, and I am quoted on the matter.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been fairly vocal about the safety of nanoparticles in sunscreens.  I still contend that the weight of published evidence suggests that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens do not present a significant when the relevant products are developed and used responsibly – and that the benefits of using this technology over others may in fact outweigh any residual risk.  But I’m also aware that this isn’t a closed issue – there are niggling questions on the use of photoactive particles, on nanoparticle sunscreen applications on delicate or compromised skin, and on dermal penetration of chemicals within the nanoparticles, that all need further research.  So I was surprised to read that my mind is apparently made up here!

After talking with Robin about cosmetics, sunscreen and nanoparticles, she sent me draft of my comments to check for factual accuracy before the piece went to press.  The original text read:

“…Agreed Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health: “The industry seems reasonably well self-regulating.”

In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecular-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores – are dangerous. His conclusion: They’re not.

“It was really surprising, to be honest,” he said.”

This was uncommonly generous of Robin by the way – many reporters will not do this (for good reason – they don’t want people interfering with the story), and in general I don’t expect it.

My response:

Hi Robin, and thanks for letting me see this – Scott’s comments are great here btw.

If you are able, could I just change one thing: instead of “In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecular-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores – are dangerous. His conclusion: They’re not.”, is it possible to have something along the lines of “In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecular-sized particles that protect the skin from the sun – are dangerous. His conclusion: Not if they’re used responsibly”

It’s not as black and white admittedly, but there are still niggling uncertainties associated with the use of nanoparticles that I am on record as highlighting (as there are with other sunscreen ingredients), and it would look odd if I was quoted as saying something that seemed to contradict my usual message.

I should note at this point that, under these circumstances, my policy is to treat the reporter’s work with respect, and refrain from editing the text unless there is a compelling reason to do so.  But in this case I was concerned about the overstatement of my position on nanoparticle safety, and I thought that the technical error on the purpose of the nanoparticles being to ease the lotion into the skin pores should be addressed (in sunscreen the particles coat the skin and protect against UV exposure.  In some cosmetics, nanoparticles are used to help penetrate through the outer dead layers of skin cells – there may have been some confusion between the two here).

Robin responded back:

“Thanks for the response. No problem on tweaking the wording. I want it correct, of course.

Let me just ask this though: What would be an “irresponsible” use of sunscreen? I’m not trying to be funny – I just want to make sure the qualifier “if used responsibly” really translates for consumers.”

To which I replied:

“Understand – “responsible” can be a bit of an irresponsible blanket term :-)

Here, I mean using nanoparticles after giving possible health and environmental impacts due consideration, and doing everything possible to ensure minimal impacts and significant benefits. A bit of a mouthful, but feel free to tweak the quote. I won’t be able to respond as I’m about to board a plane back to Michigan from Denmark (hence the delay with this response) – but am sure whatever you arrive at will be fine.”

I may have been a bit generous with that last statement, as what was published on Monday came out as:

“Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, agreed. “The industry seems to be reasonably well self-regulating.”

In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecule-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores — are dangerous. His conclusion: They’re not.

“It was really surprising, to be honest,” he said.”

The adherence to the original text isn’t a particularly big deal, and to be fair I almost definitely didn’t express myself as clearly as I could have in the original phone interview.  But just in case you read this and thought that the book was closed on nano-sunscreens from my perspective – it’s not!

Nano quadrotors – a game-changing technology innovation, but can we handle it?

It’s been hard to avoid the buzz surrounding nano quadrotors this week, following the posting of Vijay Kumar’s jaw-dropping TED talk – and the associated viral video of the semi-autonomous machines playing the James Bond theme.

The quadrotors are impressive – incredibly impressive.  But I’m sure I am not the only person watching these videos who felt a shiver of apprehension about where the technology might lead.

When people talk about emerging technologies – especially when the focus is on potential risks and unintended consequences – it doesn’t take long for the usual suspects to emerge: with nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering usually appearing toward the top of the list.  But I wonder whether focusing on big, well-publicized technology trends sometimes masks some of the less discussed but more important technology innovations that are already impacting on people’s lives.

Tim Harper and I underscored this concern in a report from the World Economic Forum last year where we suggested we should be focusing just as much on the innovations that build on synergistic connections between technology platforms (see below), because this is where many of the more significant disruptive and game-changing technologies will emerge.

It’s partly because of this that I have been so intrigued by the nano quadrotor work coming out of the GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

Technology innovation – building on technology platforms. World Economic Forum: Building a Sustainable Future

The nano quadrotors that Vijay Kumar’s team are developing are a prime example of synergistic innovation leading to a game-changing technology.  The quadrotors combine components from multiple technology platforms – sensors, materials, information processing and others – and as a result they present opportunities and risks that depend on the synergism between these platforms.  In other words, the potential disruption comes not from the platforms, but how they are combined into products.

Just thinking briefly about the potential impacts of the nano quadrotors, it’s not hard to see how it could shake things up.  In fact Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, tweeted after Vijay’s talk:

On the plus side, the nano quadrotor technology clearly opens new avenues into the areas of search and rescue, exploration and surveillance.  But it’s also frighteningly easy to see how it could lead down darker paths.  I’m sure I am not the first to have the sensation of dystopic Sci-Fi movies playing out before my eyes as I watch the video above.

Applications in military intelligence are a no-brainer – as well as in tracking terrorist activities, or any other activities that goverments and others want to monitor for that matter.  The swarming ability of the nano quadrotors also opens up intriguing new options for semi-autonomous offensive systems that are able to outsmart defensive screens.  And it’s not hard to imagine the devices being deployed on search and destroy missions, equipped with advanced face recognition capabilities and some suitably nasty toxin.  And that’s just after giving the possibilities a cursory thought.

Of course, the technology is almost definitely not as mature as the videos suggest – just yet.  The most impressive videos – including the nano quadrotors playing the James Bond theme – downplay the complexity of the external feedback and control systems needed and the limited range of the devices.  But this is where synergistic technology innovation that builds on advanced technology platforms comes into its own.

For instance, take these four possible limitations of the technology, and the likely availability of technology-based solutions (and I’m speculating a little here, not being a nano quadrotor insider):

Sensors:  To work effectively, the nano quadrotors need feedback – and lots of it.  In the lab, this is provided through a combination of on-board and remote sensors.  Although out of lab use is possible, it seems to be limited in part by the size, range, speed and sensitivity of on-board sensors at present.  This will change.  With advances in sensor technology that are already on the horizon, it will be easier to equip the devices with small, lightweight sensors that will allow increasingly autonomous operation.

Materials:  The nano quadrotors depend on lightweight, high performance materials to ensure minimum power requirements and maximum maneuverability.  Nanoscale science and engineering are already leading to a new generation of lightweight high performance materials that will further improve performance, as well as enabling further miniaturization.

Data processing: The current generation of nano quadrotors depend on incredibly powerful and sophisticated data processing capabilities.  The next generation will demand even more.  My guess is that there is still a shortfall between what can be achieved and what is needed for strong out of lab performance.  But we’re getting there.  There is still no end in sight to the exponential growth in processing power, or in smart new ways of using this power to process complex datasets on the fly.

Power.  Vijay Kumar estimates that the current crop of nano quadrotors consume 15 watts of power – giving them in my estimate a maximum of 10 – 20 minute operating time between charges using current battery technologies.  Not a lot if you are on an extended search and rescue mission!  But battery technology is still advancing rapidly, and over the next few years it is entirely conceivable that this range will be doubled or more.  Perhaps more intriguingly, it’s not too hard to imagine extending the range of a nano quadrotor to tens of miles by combining the its semi-autonomous behavior with hundreds of well-placed recharging stations.  And if those stations used wireless power-transmission technologies currently under development – and thousands of them were air-dropped over a region – the effective range of nano quadrotor swarms could be extended to hundreds of miles or more.

Even looking at these four potentially limiting factors on nano quadrotor performance and use, it becomes apparent that current technology platforms are close to providing solutions that will make this a viable, powerful, and probably highly disruptive technology.  Whether this will lead to a net gain or a net loss for society is by no-means clear yet.  What I think is clear is that focusing on the responsible development of technology platforms, to the exclusion of the innovations that arise at the intersections between them, runs the risk of us missing what is most likely to change the world we live in.

Is Maynard going over to the nano-dark side?

A few weeks ago I spent some time chatting with Howard Lovy for an article for the Nanobusiness Commercialization Association.  That interview was posted by Vincent Caprio on his blog a few days ago, and raised a few eyebrows – was I showing signs of becoming a nano-risk skeptic?

I hope not, as as I still feel emerging evidence and trends indicate major perceived and real risk-related barriers lie in the path of developing nanoscale science and engineering successfully, if we aren’t smart.  But I have always adhered to the idea that successful and responsible technology development depends on taking an evidence-based approach – even if that evidence is sometimes uncomfortable.  And so these days I sometimes worry that too much is made of artificial constructs surrounding “nanotechnology”, and not enough is made of the underlying science.

Reading through Howard’s piece, I felt it was a pretty accurate reflection of our conversation.  There are a couple of places where it possibly indicates less concern on my part than is warranted.  Toward the end of the piece for instance I am quoted as saying “there is no need [for the nanobusiness community] to respond to individual challenges such as this lawsuit against the FDA”, referring to a recent lawsuit by consumer advocates against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which claims the FDA is failing to regulate nanomaterials in products.

I’m pretty sure I did say something along these lines.  But the context was that lawsuits like these are a relatively widely used mechanism for holding federal agencies to account and prodding them into action.  And while they are often important, the nanobusiness community need to understand this context and be aware of the bigger picture when it comes to responsible and sustainable development.

Overall though, the piece captures my increasing interest in getting to the bottom of what can go wrong as new technologies are developed, and how we need to start exploring better ways of ensuring responsible innovation.

Here’s the piece that Howard wrote – the original can be read on Vincent Caprio’s blog Evolving Innovations.

When Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, read the text of a recent lawsuit by consumer advocates against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which claims the FDA is failing to regulate nanomaterials in products, one phrase jumped out at him. The groups used the words “fundamentally unique properties” when referring to nanoscale ingredients.

The phrase, in fact, comes directly from marketing material of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. So, in one sense, the nanotech industry is a victim of its own public relations, Maynard believes. A phrase used to promote nanotech commercialization is being thrown back at nanotech advocates by those who would use the same logic to demand strict regulations.

“There is an assumption that you can have everything your own way,” Maynard says. “You can say something was unique and important and world-changing, selling the hype, and yet not really understanding what the long-term consequences of that hype are.”

This is what Maynard does for a living. He tries to reach beyond hype and beyond gloom to assess and communicate the real risks associated with emerging technologies, including nanotechnology. But he approaches these assessments from a starting point that seems increasingly difficult to achieve in these polarized political times – one based on scientific principles rather than political agenda.

The problem with that “unique properties” phrase that has been so misused over the years is that the science does not necessarily back it up. Material at the nanoscale is not necessarily any different from its macroscale cousin.

“Now, with the research that’s been generated in the last few years, it’s become increasingly clear that there’s no well-defined set of materials that raise red flags when it comes to size,” Maynard says. “About the best you can do is say that the smaller and more sophisticated you make things the more you have to think about a wide range of questions when you’re evaluating safety.”

So, when Maynard now discusses nanotechnology and potential risk, he’s not likely to even use the “n” word. He’s talking about advanced materials, or “sophisticated materials.”

For example, he says, what questions do you ask when trying to determine whether quantum dots are safe? Well, you talk about the composition of the quantum dot, how its physical and chemical structure determines how it interacts with biological systems, and how its size effects where it goes in the body and how it interacts within it.

“But those are not nano-specific questions,” he says. “They’re the questions associated with a specifically designed material.”

The same thing with titanium dioxide found in sunscreens. Shrink them down to nanosize and you get concerns raised by advocacy groups such as the Friends of the Earth and others involved in the lawsuit against the FDA, but the research says titanium dioxide, even at that size, is still pretty benign.

It has taken Maynard a few years to reach this point in his thinking about nanotech. Many in the nanotech business community might remember Maynard when he was scientific adviser for the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) between 2005 and 2008. The PEN raised many questions about the potential risks of nanomaterials. Has he changed since his Wilson Center days?

“I have, which is I think inevitable. If you take a young field, our knowledge is going to change over time,” Maynard says. “And if we don’t change our opinions based on that knowledge there’s something wrong.”

But one thing that has not changed is his belief that if nanotech is going to develop into a sustainable industry that is economically robust, it needs to also be “socially robust” and develop with an eye toward social implications.

“It makes a lot of business sense, if you’re developing any new technology – not just nanotech or whatever – to be aware of the possiblities of what might go wrong with that technology and those products and shore things up as early as possible,” he says.

The problem, though, is that roughly 10 years after these questions were first asked, after the U.S. government has invested millions in looking at the environmental and health implications of nanotechnology, we still are not much wiser.

“We know a lot more now,” Maynard says. “The question is do we know a lot more that’s useful now. That’s what I would debate.” The problem, he says, is that the wrong questions are being asked.

Take, for example, carbon nanotubes. There is an assumption by many researchers, Maynard said, that the material is similar to asbestos. But nanotubes are not straight, long, rigid fibers, yet this assumption is driving the research.

“I am quite often concerned that you talk to toxicology groups doing research on carbon nanotubes, I don’t think many of them could actually accurately describe to you the physical form or nature of a carbon nanotube. And yet they’re doing research under various assumptions of what these things are like.”

So, this is the mission of Maynard’s Risk Science Center – to start discussions about the risks of technology with a grounding in real science and not on speculation, taking and “evidence-based approach.”

He’s come a long way since the early 1990s, Maynard, now 46, worked on his Ph. D. at Cambridge in the UK, using advanced microscopy techniques to analyze airborne particles. At the time, many of his colleagues told him he was wasting his time. There would be no future in tiny materials. They were wrong, of course, and Maynard got involved further and further into studying emerging technologies. Eventually, he made the jump from doing science to studying the proper ways of communicating it to the public.

Next on his agenda is looking at issues involved in advanced manufacturing, which overlaps with nanotech. Again, he said he is asking questions having to do with how businesses using new manufacturing technologies, producing new materials, can predict where economic and social barriers are going to be and have a plan to get over them. That includes codes of conduct, standards and best practices. It is up to the industry, itself, to make sure these are in place. The alternative is unwanted regulation.

The most-important advice Maynard gives to the nanotech business community is to simply be aware of the possible implications of the technology they’re developing and make sure regulatory agencies are properly informed of what is being done. But there is no need to respond to individual challenges such as this lawsuit against the FDA.

“It’s worthwhile playing the long game and not being too reactionary to what happens,” Maynard says. “What’s happened over the last 10 years is that concerns over nanotechnology really haven’t gained that much traction.”

In fact, it’s just the opposite. People, in general, remain excited about the prospects of nanotechnology.

“I think the bottom line is to be as honest as possible, and talk to people,” Maynard says. “One of the biggest problems is if you come across as trying to hide things or trying to obscure things. Generally, people are really excited about this technology. They just want to know what’s going on. They want to know what it’s about.”

For more on where my thinking is going on sophisticated materials, check out:

Maynard, A. D., Philbert, M. A. and Warheit, D. B. (2011) The New Toxicology of Sophisticated Materials: Nanotoxicology and Beyond. Toxicol. Sci. 120 (suppl 1): S109-S129. [Free download]

Maynard, A. D. (2011) Don’t Define Nanomaterials. Nature 475, 31 [Accessible here]

Maynard, A. D., Bowman, D., Hodge, G. (2011) The problem of regulating sophisticated materials. Nature Materials 10, 554–557 [Accessible here]

Are consumers risking skin cancer because of fears over nanoparticles in sunscreens?

This has just landed in my email in box from Craig Cormick at the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education in Australia, and I thought I would pass it on given the string of posts on nanoparticles in sunscreens on 2020 Science over the past few years:

At Australia’s International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN 2012) earlier this month, the results of a public perception study were released that indicate some Australian consumers would rather risk skin cancer by not using sunscreen than use a product containing nanoparticles.  This despite increasing evidence that nanoparticles in sunscreens do not present a significant risk to health. The study was complimented by tests conducted by Australia’s National Measurement Institute that suggest some sunscreens labeled as “nano free” contain nanostructured material.

According to the media release on the public perceptions study,

“An online poll of 1,000 people, conducted in January this year, shows that one in three Australians had heard or read stories about the risks of using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them,” Dr Cormick said.

“Thirteen percent of this group were concerned or confused enough that they would be less likely to use any sunscreen, whether or not it contained nanoparticles, putting them selves at increased risk of developing potentially deadly skin cancers.

“The study also found that while one in five respondents stated they would go out of their way to avoid using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them, over three in five would need to know more information before deciding.”

A news release sent out a couple of weeks ago to coincide with ICONN 2012 also noted

Scientists from Australia’s National Measurement Institute and overseas collaborators reported on a technique using the scattering of synchrotron light to determine the sizes of particles in sunscreens. They found that some commercial sunscreens that claim to be ‘nano-free’ do in fact contain nanostructured material. The findings highlight the need for clear definitions when describing nanomaterials.

This study allegedly led to Friends of the Earth Australia removing their Safe Sunscreen Summer Guide 2011-2012 from the web – a guide which advises against using nanoparticle-containing sunscreens – until further information is available. The guide’s website currently states:

“Doubt has been cast over the accuracy of the nano status of some sunscreen brands in our guide. It appears that some companies may have been deceived as to the nano-content of their products. We are working flat-out to get a resolution to this matter.

We advise people to continue to be sun safe when spending time in the sun: seek shade, wear protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses and use sunscreen.

This page will be updated as soon as possible.

Thanks for your patience.”

While early questions concerning the possible dangers of using nanoparticle-containing sunscreens were legitimate given the state of science ten years ago, research over the intervening years has failed to substantiate concerns (see this review for example). Despite this, this latest opinions survey indicates that people may be at risk of placing themselves in greater danger because of concerns that continue to be articulated.  Although it’s always hard to estimate how answers to questions like the ones asked here translate into actual actions, the survey does beg the questions – at what point does asking questions stimulate actions that lead to greater risks; and how should the public dialogue around a speculative risk respond to new evidence as it emerges?

Full details of the sunscreen perceptions and awareness survey can be found here.

Also worth reading: The safety of nanotechnology-based sunscreens – some reflections

Wonders and Worries – Retro nano at its best!

Here’s an introduction to the “wonders and worries of nanotechnology” that I think is rather brilliant:

It’s part of a series being produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education network (NISE Net). The series is designed to stimulate discussions addressing the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology – but in an accessible and non-threatening way.

Keep your eyes peeled for further episodes with Mindy and Denny – having read through some of the draft scripts, I think you will enjoy them!

World Economic Forum: Top Emerging Technologies Trends

For the past few months, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has been working on identifying some of the most significant trends in technology innovation.  Published yesterday by WEF, these represent ten areas that we as a council felt are likely to shake things up over the next few years in terms of their economic and social impact.

The plan is to update this assessment on an annual basis

Here’s the list:

Informatics for adding value to information

The quantity of information now available to individuals and organizations is unprecedented in human history, and the rate of information generation continues to grow exponentially. Yet, the sheer volume of information is in danger of creating more noise than value, and as a result limiting its effective use. Innovations in how information is organized, mined and processed hold the key to filtering out the noise and using the growing wealth of global information to address emerging challenges.

Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering

The natural world is a testament to the vast potential inherent in the genetic code at the core of all living organisms. Rapid advances in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are allowing biologists and engineers to tap into this potential in unprecedented ways, enabling the development of new biological processes and organisms that are designed to serve specific purposes – whether converting biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials, producing new therapeutic drugs or protecting the body against harm.

Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass

Artificial fertilizers are one of the main achievements of modern chemistry, enabling unprecedented increases in crop production yield. Yet, the growing global demand for healthy and nutritious food is threatening to outstrip energy, water and land resources. By integrating advances across the biological and physical sciences, the new green revolution holds the promise of further increasing crop production yields, minimizing environmental impact, reducing energy and water dependence, and decreasing the carbon footprint.

Nanoscale design of materials

The increasing demand on natural resources requires unprecedented gains in efficiency. Nanostructured materials with tailored properties, designed and engineered at the molecular scale, are already showing novel and unique features that will usher in the next clean energy revolution, reduce our dependence on depleting natural resources, and increase atom-efficiency manufacturing and processing.

Systems biology and computational modelling/simulation of chemical and biological systems

For improved healthcare and bio-based manufacturing, it is essential to understand how biology and chemistry work together. Systems biology and computational modelling and simulation are playing increasingly important roles in designing therapeutics, materials and processes that are highly efficient in achieving their design goals, while minimally impacting on human health and the environment.

Utilization of carbon dioxide as a resource

Carbon is at the heart of all life on earth. Yet, managing carbon dioxide releases is one of the greatest social, political and economic challenges of our time. An emerging innovative approach to carbon dioxide management involves transforming it from a liability to a resource. Novel catalysts, based on nanostructured materials, can potentially transform carbon dioxide to high value hydrocarbons and other carbon-containing molecules, which could be used as new building blocks for the chemical industry as cleaner and more sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals.

Wireless power

Society is deeply reliant on electrically powered devices. Yet, a significant limitation in their continued development and utility is the need to be attached to the electricity grid by wire – either permanently or through frequent battery recharging. Emerging approaches to wireless power transmission will free electrical devices from having to be physically plugged in, and are poised to have as significant an impact on personal electronics as Wi-Fi had on Internet use.

High energy density power systems

Better batteries are essential if the next generation of clean energy technologies are to be realized. A number of emerging technologies are coming together to lay the foundation for advanced electrical energy storage and use, including the development of nanostructured electrodes, solid electrolysis and rapid-power delivery from novel supercapacitors based on carbon-based nanomaterials. These technologies will provide the energy density and power needed to supercharge the next generation of clean energy technologies.

Personalized medicine, nutrition and disease prevention

As the global population exceeds 7 billion people – all hoping for a long and healthy life – conventional approaches to ensuring good health are becoming less and less tenable, spurred on by growing demands, dwindling resources and increasing costs. Advances in areas such as genomics, proteomics and metabolomics are now opening up the possibility of tailoring medicine, nutrition and disease prevention to the individual. Together with emerging technologies like synthetic biology and nanotechnology, they are laying the foundation for a revolution in healthcare and well-being that will be less resource intensive and more targeted to individual needs.

Enhanced education technology

New approaches are needed to meet the challenge of educating a growing young population and providing the skills that are essential to the knowledge economy. This is especially the case in today’s rapidly evolving and hyperconnected globalized society. Personalized IT-based approaches to education are emerging that allow learner-centred education, critical thinking development and creativity. Rapid developments in social media, open courseware and ubiquitous access to the Internet are facilitating outside classroom and continuous education.

National Academy publishes new nanomaterials risk research strategy

The US National Academy of Science today published its long-awaited Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials. I won’t comment extensively on the report as I was a member of the committee that wrote it.  But I did want to highlight a number of aspects of it that I think are particularly noteworthy:

Great progress so far, but it’s time to change gears. Something we grappled with as a committee was what the value of yet another research strategy was going to be.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the US federal government published a well received strategy of its own.  A key driver behind our strategy was a sense that the past decade has been one of defining the challenges we face as the field of nanotechnology develops, while the next decade will require more focus as an ever greater number of nanotechnology-enabled products hit the market.  In other words, from a research perspective it’s time to change gears, building on past work but focusing on rapidly emerging challenges.

Combining life cycle and value chain in a single framework for approaching nanomaterial risk research.  As a committee, we spent considerable time developing a conceptual framework for approaching research addressing the health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials.  What we ended up using was a combination of value chain – ranging from raw materials to intermediate products to final products – and material/product life cycle at each stage of the value chain.  This effectively allows risk hot spots to be identified at each point of a material and product’s development, use and disposal cycle.

Principles, not definitions.  Rather than rely on a single definition of engineered nanomaterial to guide risk-related research, we incorporated a set of principles into our conceptual framework to help identify materials of concern from an environment, health and safety impact perspective.  These build on the principles proposed by myself, Martin Philbert and David Warheit in a toxicology review published last year.  From the National Academies report:

…the present committee focuses on a set of principles in lieu of definitions to help identify nanomaterials and associated processes on which research is needed to ensure the responsible development and use of the materials. The principles were adopted in part because of concern about the use of rigid definitions of ENMs that drive EHS research and risk-based decisions … The principles are technology-independent and can therefore be used as a long-term driver of nanomaterial risk research. They help in identifying materials that require closer scrutiny regarding risk irrespective of whether they are established, emerging, or experimental ENMs. The principles are built on three concepts: emergent risk, plausibility, and severity; …

Emergent risk, as described here, refers to the likelihood that a new material will cause harm in ways that are not apparent, assessable, or manageable with current risk-assessment and risk-management approaches. Examples of emergent risk include the ability of some nanoscale particles to penetrate to biologically relevant areas that are inaccessible to larger particles, the failure of some established toxicity assays to indicate accurately the hazard posed by some nanomaterials, scalable behavior that is not captured by conventional hazard assessments (such as behavior that scales with surface area, not mass), and the possibility of abrupt changes in the nature of material-biologic interactions associated with specific length scales. Identifying emergent risk depends on new research that assesses a novel material’s behavior and potential to cause harm.

Emergent risk is defined in terms of the potential of a material to cause harm in unanticipated or poorly understood ways rather than being based solely on its physical structure or physicochemical properties. Thus, it is not bound by rigid definitions of nanotechnology or nanomaterials. Instead, the principle of emergence enables ENMs that present unanticipated risks to human health and the environment to be distinguished from materials that probably do not. It also removes considerable confusion over how nanoscale atoms, molecules, and internal material structures should be considered from a risk perspective, by focusing on behavior rather than size.

Many of the ENMs of concern in recent years have shown a potential to lead to emergent risks and would be tagged under this principle and thus require further investigation. But the concept also allows more complex nanomaterials to be considered—those in the early stages of development or yet to be developed. These include active and self-assembling nanomaterials. The principle does raise the question of how “emergence” is identified, being by definition something that did not exist previously. However the committee recognized that in many cases it is possible to combine and to interpret existing data in ways that indicate the possible emergence of new risks. For example, some research has suggested that surface area is an important factor that affects the toxic potency of some ENMs; ENMs that have high specific surface area and are poorly soluble might pose an emergent risk.

Plausibility refers in qualitative terms to the science-based likelihood that a new material, product, or process will present a risk to humans or the environment. It combines the possible hazard associated with a material and the potential for exposure or release to occur. Plausibility also refers to the likelihood that a particular technology will be developed and commercialized and thus lead to emergent risks. For example, the self-replicating nanobots envisaged by some writers in the field of nanotechnology might legitimately be considered an emergent risk; if it occurs, the risk would lie outside the bounds of conventional risk assessment. But this scenario is not plausible, clearly lying more appropriately in the realm of science fiction than in science. The principle of plausibility can act as a crude but important filter to distinguish between speculative risks and credible risks.

The principle of severity refers to the extent and magnitude of harm that might result from a poorly managed nanomaterial. It also helps to capture the reduction in harm that may result from research on the identification, assessment, and management of emergent risk. The principle offers a qualitative reality check that helps to guard against extensive research efforts that are unlikely to have a substantial effect on human health or environmental protection. It also helps to ensure that research that has the potential to make an important difference is identified and supported.

Together, those three broad principles provide a basis for developing an informed strategy for selecting materials that have the greatest potential to present risks. They can be used to separate new materials that raise safety concerns from materials that, although they may be novel from an application perspective, do not present undetected, unexpected, or enhanced risks. They contribute to providing a framework for guiding a prioritized risk-research agenda. In this respect, the principles were used by the committee as it considered the pressing risk challenges presented by ENMs.

Maintaining current research and development funding levels.  As a committee, we felt that the current US federal government of ~$120 million into environment, health and safety-specific nanotechnology research was reasonable, especially given the current economic climate.  However, we did recommend that, as knowledge develops and commercialization of products using nanomaterials increases,  funded research is aligned with areas and priorities identified within the strategy.

Developing cross-cutting activities.  There were five areas where the committee felt that further funding was needed to ensure the value of nano-risk research was fully realized.  Each of these cuts across areas of research, and provides the means to maximize the benefit of the science being supported.  From the report:

Informatics: $5 million per year in new funding for the next 5 years should be used to support the development of robust informatics systems and tools for managing and using information on the EHS effects of ENMs. The committee concluded that developing robust and responsive informatics systems for ENM EHS information was critical to guiding future strategic research, and translating research into actionable intelligence. This includes maximizing the value of research that is EHS-relevant but not necessarily EHS-specific, such as studies conducted during the development of new therapeutics. Based on experiences from other areas of research, investment in informatics of the order of $15 million is needed to make substantial progress in a complex and data rich field. However, within the constraints of nanotechnology R&D, the committee concluded that the modest investment proposed would at least allow initial informatics systems to be developed and facilitate planning for the long-term.

Instrumentation: $10 million per year in new funding for the next 5 years should be invested in translating existing measurement and characterization techniques into platforms that are accessible and relevant to EHS research and in developing new EHS- specific measurement and characterization techniques for assessing ENMs under a variety of conditions. The committee recognized that the proposed budget is insufficient for substantial research into developing new nanoscale characterization techniques— especially considering the cost of high-end instruments such as analytic electron microscopes—in excess of $2 million per instrument. However, the proposed budget was considered adequate to support the translation of techniques developed or deployed in other fields for the EHS characterization of ENMs.

Materials: Investment is needed in developing benchmark ENMs over the next 5 years, a long-standing need that has attracted little funding to date. The scope of funding needed depends in part on the development of public-private partnerships. However, to assure that funding is available to address this critical gap, the committee recommends that $3-5 million per year be invested initially in developing and distributing benchmark ENMs. While more funds could be expended on developing a library of materials, this amount will assure that the most critically needed materials are developed. These materials will enable systematic investigation of their behavior and mechanisms of action in environmental and biologic systems. The availability of such materials will allow benchmarking of studies among research groups and research activities. The committee further recommends that activities around materials development be supported by public- private partnerships. Such partnerships would also help to assure that relevant materials are being assessed.

Sources: $2 million per year in new funding for the next 5 years should be invested in characterizing sources of ENM release and exposure throughout the value chain and life cycle of products. The committee considered that this was both an adequate and reasonable budget to support a comprehensive inventory of ENM sources.

Networks: $2 million per year in new funding for the next 5 years should be invested in developing integrated researcher and stakeholder networks that facilitate the sharing of information and the translation of knowledge to effective use. The networks should allow participation of representatives of industry and international research programs and are a needed complement to the informatics infrastructure. They would also facilitate dialogue around the development of a dynamic library of materials. The committee concluded that research and stakeholder networks are critical to realizing the value of federally funded ENM EHS research and considered this to be an area where a relatively small amount of additional funding would have a high impact—both in the development of research strategies and in the translation and use of research findings. Given the current absence of such networks, the proposed budget was considered adequate.

Authority and accountability.  In our report, we talk quite a bit about the need for an entity within the federal government to take the lead in implementing a risk research strategy.  While the US National Nanotechnology Initiative have done a great job coordinating interagency activities, we felt that there is only so far coordination without authority can go if socially and economically important research is to be conducted in a timely and relevant manner.  What this “entity” might look like – we left that to the federal government to chew over.

There’s a lot more to the report – including (as you would expect) a broad assessment of research areas that need attention if the science of nanomaterial human health and environmental impacts is to continue to develop effectively.

This is the first of two reports- the second is due in around 18 months, and will look at progress toward implementing a relevant and effective research strategy.

The National Academies report “A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials” can be downloaded here.


2012 World Economic Forum Global Risk Report

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog

The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report is one of the most authoritative annual assessments of emerging issues surrounding risk currently produced. Now in its seventh edition, the 2012 report launched today draws on over 460 experts* from industry, government, academia and civil society to provide insight into 50 global risks across five categories, within a ten-year forward looking window.

Global Risk Landscape 2012. Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition

As you would expect from such a major undertaking, the report has its limitations. There are some risk trends that maybe aren’t captured as well as they could be – chronic disease and pandemics are further down the list this year than I would have expected. And there are others that capture the headlining concerns of the moment – severe income disparity is the top-listed global risk in terms of likelihood. But taken as a whole, the trends highlighted capture key concerns and the analysis provides timely and relevant insight.

Risks are addressed in five broad categories, covering economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks. And cutting across these, the report considers three top-level issues under the headings Seeds of Dystopia (action or inaction that leads to fragility in states); How Safe are our Safeguards? (unintended consequences of over, under and unresponsive regulation); and The Dark Side of Connectivity (connectivity-induced vulnerability). These provide a strong framework for approaching the identified risks systemically, and teasing apart complex interactions that could lead to adverse consequences.

But how does the report relate to public health more specifically?

The short answer is that many of the issues raised have a direct or indirect impact on public health nationally and globally. Many of the issues are complex and intertwined, and are deserving of much more attention than I’ve been able to give the report so far. I did however want to pull out some of the points that struck me on a first read-through:

Unintended consequences of nanotechnology. Following a trend seen in previous Global Risks reports, the unintended consequences of nanotechnology – while still flagged up – are toward the bottom of the risk spectrum. The potential toxicity of engineered nanomaterials is still mentioned as a concern. But most of the 50 risks addressed are rated as having a higher likelihood and/or impact.

Unintended consequences of new life science technologies. These are also relatively low on the list, but higher up the scale of concern that nanotechnologies. Specifically called out are the possibilities of genetic manipulation through synthetic biology leading to unintended consequences or biological weapons.

Unforeseen consequences of regulation. These are ranked relatively low in terms of likelihood and impact. But the broad significance of unintended consequences is highlighted in the report. These are also linked in with the potential impact and likelihood of global governance failure. Specifically, the report calls for

“A shift in mentality … so that policies, regulations or institutions can offer vital protection in a more agile and cohesive way.”

The report’s authors also ask how leaders can develop anticipatory and holistic approaches to system safeguards; how businesses and governments can prevent a breakdown of trust following the emergence of new risks; and how governments, business and civil society can work together to improve resilience against unforeseen risks.

Vulnerability to pandemics. Pandemic-associated risks are in the middle of the pack when it comes to potential impact, but not as high as might be expected on the likelihood scale. In 2007 and 2008 pandemics were listed in the top five global risks in terms of impact in the Global Risks Report, but have not appeared this high since 2009. With increasing talk about flu strains like H5N1, I wonder whether the relegation of pandemics from the top-tier risks is an oversight.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These are flagged up right in the middle of the risk-pack as an emerging risk, and are one of the highest-ranked risks directly related to public health. The report provides little additional information beyond this though.

Food and water shortage crises. Thee are the highest-ranked risks in terms of impact below major systemic financial failure. And while they are both addressed as systemic risks, failure in each area has clear public health implications.

Rising rates of chronic disease. While overshadowed by higher profile risks, this remains an area of significant anticipated adverse impact and likelihood in the report.

Dystopic trends. The chapter addressing potential drivers of a dystopic future does not directly address public health issues. But trends that have an indirect impact on health thread through it. The impact of the current global financial crisis on jobs, working hours and benefits is highlighted, and it is noted that young people have been especially hard hit recently by a lack of career opportunities. The challenges of an aging population are also flagged. Both areas impact indirectly (and sometimes not so indirectly) on health and well-being. One of the questions for stakeholders posed here is “What measures should be taken today to deal with the changing socio-economic dynamics of an ageing population and a bulging young population?” One could equally well ask what measures should be taken to ensure the health of these two populations.

Regulatory risks. In the case addressing asking “How Safe are our Safeguards?” the report’s authors conclude that:

“far-reaching weaknesses in regulations [suggest] that we may be falling behind in our capacity to protect the systems that underpin growth and prosperity”

This report considers regulation extremely broadly, and spans everything from financial regulation to safety regulation. Yet it also stresses the need for integrated approaches to systemic challenges. The highlighted questions to stakeholders at the end of this section are particularly pertinent to health risk-related regulation and governance:

  • How can leaders break the pattern of crisis followed by reactionary regulation and develop anticipatory and holistic approaches to system safeguards?
  • How can appropriate regulations be developed so that firms will undertake effective safeguards?
  • How can businesses and governments prevent a rapid breakdown of trust following the emergence of a new widespread risk?
  • How can businesses, government and civil society work together to improve resilience against unforeseen risks?

Emerging technologies and emerging risks: In examining information on technologies and risks, the report concludes

“globally, the latest technologies are increasingly accessible to local industries, but indicators relating to confidence in the institutions responsible for developing safeguards, including those that manage the risks of emerging technologies, have not shown proportional increases.”

Special report on the 2011 Japan earthquake. The March 11 earthquake that hit Japan last year and the following tsunami resulted in widespread social, economic and health impacts. In a special report, the 2011 Global Risk Report takes a holistic look at factors, events and impacts. This is a case review that is well worth reading from a systemic risk perspective.

Risk centers of gravity. The report concludes with a fascinating analysis of risk “Centers of Gravity” within the five sectors it focuses on – these are described as the risks perceived to be of greatest systemic importance, or the most influential and consequential in relation to others, within each sector. The risk centers of gravity that emerged in each sector were:

  • Economic: Chronic fiscal imbalances
  • Environmental: Rising greenhouse gas emissions
  • Geopolitical: Global governance failure
  • Societal: Unsustainable population growth
  • Technological: Critical systems failure
Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition

The bottom line? The report concludes that

Decision-makers need to improve understanding of incentives that will improve collaboration in response to global risks;

Trust, or lack of trust, is perceived to be a crucial factor in how risks may manifest themselves. In particular, this refers to confidence, or lack thereof, in leaders, in systems which ensure public safety and in the tools of communication that are revolutionizing how we share and digest information; and

Communication and information sharing on risks must be improved by introducing greater transparency about uncertainty and conveying it to the public in a meaningful way.

The Global Risks 2012 Seventh Edition is available at

*I was marginally involved in the report as a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies

Pencasts – a useful educational tool?

I picked up a new toy this weekend. (If you want to cut to the chase and see what I’ve been doing with it, please head straight to the end of the post).

I’m fascinated by the combination of old tech (essentially “chalk and talk”) and new media that Sal Kahn has been successfully using to teach mathematics and science on-line.  The basic approach he uses of writing and drawing while talking is as old as the hills.  But he successfully enhances this through “debundling” topics (breaking things down into small digestible chunks) and making his digitized chalk and talk lessons freely available as short online videos.

Chalk and talk is a way of teaching I still find effective, as it forces me to develop ideas at a measured pace, while allowing my students to follow the thought process and take notes. But it’s an approach that is increasingly out of vogue as educators feel they have to pander to today’s tech-savvy and social media-immersed students.  So inspired by Sol Kahn, I’ve been looking at ways of combining this approach with new online tools to provide teaching resources that extend what can be achieved in the classroom.

My first approach was to look at Kahn’s setup – essentially using a drawing tablet and software as a digital blackboard, and recording short videos to teach specific concepts and skills.  But after just a few minutes, I realized that this was a learning curve that was too steep for me (put it down to age!) – tablets have a remarkable ability to make everything look like it was drawn by a 3 year old, until you get the hang of it!

Then I came across pencasts. Continue reading Pencasts – a useful educational tool?

A few Small Issues about Public Engagement on Nanotechnology

A guest blog by Craig Cormick.

Over the past decade there has been a significant growth in public engagement activities relating to nanotechnology and when you look across all the data being generated you can learn a lot about how the public view the risks and benefits of the technology. That’s probably not news for anybody who follows this blog. But what might be news is to look closely at who is driving these engagements. Is it the public? Generally no. Continue reading A few Small Issues about Public Engagement on Nanotechnology

Exposure to silver nanoparticles may be more common than we thought

The past few years has seen an explosion of interest in silver nanoparticles.  Along with a plethora of products using the particles to imbue antimicrobial properties on everything from socks to toothpaste, nanometer scale silver particles have been under intense scrutiny from researchers and policy makers concerned that they present an emerging health and environmental risk.  But a paper published last month in the journal ACS Nano suggests that, contrary to popular understanding, we’ve been exposed to silver nanoparticles for as long as we have been using the metal. Continue reading Exposure to silver nanoparticles may be more common than we thought

New US federal strategy for nanotechnology safety research released

The latest iteration of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative’s Environmental, Health and Safety Research Strategy was released today – downloadable from A draft of the document has been on the streets since last December – this version was compiled after a public comment period on that draft that closed earlier this year (the key comments received are listed here).

Given the comments received, I was interested to see how much they had influenced the final strategy.  If you take the time to comment on a federal document, it’s always nice to know that someone has paid attention.  Unfortunately, it isn’t usual practice for the federal government to respond directly to public comments, so I had the arduous task of carrying out a side by side comparison of the draft, and today’s document. Continue reading New US federal strategy for nanotechnology safety research released

EC adopts cross-cutting definition of nanomaterials to be used for all regulatory purposes

The European Commission had just adopted a “cross-cutting designation of nanomaterials to be used for all regulatory purposes” (link). The definition builds on a draft definition released last year, but includes a number of substantial changes to this.

Here’s the full text of the definition: Continue reading EC adopts cross-cutting definition of nanomaterials to be used for all regulatory purposes

US National Nanotechnology Initiative to release latest Environmental, Health and Safety research strategy, Oct 20

This coming Thursday (Oct 20 2011), the US National Nanotechnology Initiative is releasing the latest version of the Initiative’s federal nanotechnology environmental, health and safety research strategy.  The strategy will be available for download from 10:00 AM Eastern time, with a webinar on the release being held between 12:00 PM – 12:45 PM Eastern (registration required).  Further details can be found here.

A draft of the research strategy was published in December 2010 for public comment – with the aim of using these comments where appropriate to strengthen the final strategy.

In anticipation of the final version coming out on Thursday, I’ve been revisiting the public comments received.  They are still accessible on the NNI Strategy Portal, although you will need to register to read them (my comments are available separately here).  I’m particularly interested in how the NNI has addressed them in the final strategy. Continue reading US National Nanotechnology Initiative to release latest Environmental, Health and Safety research strategy, Oct 20

Define nanomaterials for regulatory purposes? EU JRC says yes.

Cross-posted from The Risk Science Blog:

In a recent letter to the journal Nature (Nature 476; 399), Hermann Stamm of the European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (JRC-IHCP) defended the need to define engineered nanomaterials for regulatory purposes. The letter, titled “Nanomaterials should be defined”, was a direct response to my earlier commentary in Nature “Don’t define nanomaterials”.

Stamm’s letter is behind a paywall and so not easily accessible to many readers. But these are the main points he makes: Continue reading Define nanomaterials for regulatory purposes? EU JRC says yes.

Final program posted for the Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation symposium

It’s been a while in the making, but with a little under five weeks to go, we have just posted the final program for the 2011 Risk Science Symposium (20-21 Sept).  And even though I say so myself, it’s a doozy!

Somehow, we are squeezing 45 invited speakers into the two days, and not any old speakers – the lineup includes John Viera – Ford Motor Co. Director of Sustainability Environment and Safety Engineering; Ray O. Johnson,  Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation; Brian Ivanovic, Senior Vice President of Swiss Re; and Paul Anastas, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development and Science Advisor to the EPA.  And that’s just for starters.  We also have experts in innovation, policy, communication end engagement, risk, governance and sustainability.  We even have two leading designers from the company IDEO.

It’s going to be quite a party!

For more information on the speakers, check out the symposium website.  I’ve posted the program below, because I’m so excited about it, but you can also access it here.

The symposium is being held in Ann Arbor MI between Sept 20-21.  There are still a few spaces left, but we are nearing capacity – so if you are thinking of coming, it’s worth registering sooner rather than later. Continue reading Final program posted for the Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation symposium