Responsible Development of Nanotechnology: Maximizing Results while Minimizing Risk

Nanotechnology holds the promise of new materials and devices that can be designed and engineered to solve critical questions in almost every sector of our economy – from treating cancer, to cleaning contaminated water, accelerating advanced manufacturing, meeting energy needs, and fixing our roadways and bridges. That’s why, for the last 10 years, the United States has engaged in an ambitious effort through the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to leverage the research programs and resources of Federal agencies and maximize the potential for translating the results of nanotechnology research into products that strengthen the economy and improve our quality of life.

Nanotechnology is the study and manipulation of matter at a very tiny scale, the nanometer scale.  A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. If we think in terms of nanometers, asheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick, and a human hair is approximately 80,000 nanometers wide. But nano is not just about being small; unusual things happen at the nanoscale (a term generally understood to mean at a scale less than 100 nanometers). Specifically, unexpected physical, biological, and chemical properties emerge that are not present in the same materials at larger scales. These unique properties are what make nanomaterials useful in ways limited only by our imaginations – allowing certain materials to be extremely strong even as they are incredibly light, or granting materials highly useful electrical or optical properties.

The Federal Government is committed to the responsible development of nanotechnology so that the benefits to society are maximized while the potential for unintended consequences from nanomaterials’ novel properties is minimized. Responsible development of nanotechnology requires an integrated, risk-management-based approach to environmental, health, and safety (EHS) research.  Accordingly, NNI participating agencies produced their first NNI strategy for nanotechnology-related EHS research in 2008, and today provide a revised and updated 2011 NNI EHS Research Strategy. This updated strategy reflects the current status of the science and will serve as a guide to agencies as they develop their agency-specific nanotechnology EHS research programs. 

Core research areas addressed in the 2011 strategy include: nanomaterial measurement, human exposure assessment, human health, environment, risk assessment and management, and the new core area of predictive modeling and informatics.  Also emphasized in this strategy is a more robust risk assessment component that incorporates product life cycle analysis and ethical, legal, and societal implications of nanotechnology. Most importantly, the strategy introduces principles for targeting and accelerating nanotechnology EHS research so that risk assessment and risk management decisions are based on sound science.

Progress in EHS research is occurring on many fronts as the NNI EHS research agencies have joined together to plan and fund research programs in core areas. For example, the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health have researched the safety of nanomaterials used in skin products like sunscreen; the Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission are monitoring the health and environmental impacts of products containing silver nanoparticles, and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has recommended safe handling guidelines for workers in industries and laboratories.

More information on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, including the full range of NNI documents and resources, is available here.

Sally Tinkle is Deputy Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office; Tof Carim is Assistant Director for Nanotechnology at OSTP

Your Federal Tax Receipt