Nanotechnology: No small CCT issue


By Karen Moltenbrey

While size-wise, nanotechnology deals in objects that are quite small-typically particles measuring less than 100 nm-the ensuing contamination-control issues are, in fact, quite large.

As Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), pointed out in his keynote at the recent CleanRooms Contamination Control Technology Conference and Exhibition, nanotechnology contamination control is far from new. In the 1600s, Swiss watchmakers, concerned about dust particles, covered their timepieces with bell jars. Although the topic of nanotechnology seems to have come to the forefront only recently, the fact is that nanotechnology is present in naturally occurring phenomena such as volcanic activity; it also occurs as anthropogenic, whether unintentional (for instance, incinerators) or intentional (semiconductors and carbon, in which the size and shape of the particle is controlled).

And, the interest in nanotechnology is definitely on the rise, Howard says. In 2004, the global nanotechnology R&D investment totaled $8.6 billion, a sum that was mainly split between the government and corporate sectors. And while we are only in the first-generation of nanotechnology development and implementation (passive nanostructures such as nanoparticles and nanotubes), by the year 2030, experts predict that we will have advanced to a fourth generation of nanomaterial complexity (molecular nanosystems such as molecules by design and hierarchical functions). Moreover, during the next few years, commercial breakthroughs of products incorporating nanotechnology are expected to climb; in a decade or less, nanotechnology is expected to be commonplace, based on research Howard presented from a Lux Research Report.

So what does this mean to the contamination-control industry? As we try to understand and control and process at the nanoscale, we are introduced to contamination particles of extremely small size. So, the real question becomes, is the contamination-control industry ready to address the unique challenges posed by nanotechnology?

Purposely engineered nanostructured materials and devices demonstrate new, unique, and non-scalable properties and behaviors, Howard says. As a result, the industry will be faced with some daunting issues. Does the nature of engineered nanostructured materials and devices present new safety and health risks? How can the benefits of nanotechnology be realized while proactively minimizing potential risk?

Because of the tiny size of nanoscale particles-which span clusters of 102 to 109 atoms, with 10200 to 10900 distinct nanoscale particles-there is great variability in their chemical composition, Howard notes. Therefore, research and testing in a number of areas must be done to address the issues posed by nanotechnology in terms of contamination control, among them filter efficiency for typical respirator filters for nanoscale particles.

So what is being done? The Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee of the Committee on Technology, National Science and Technology Council developed a National Nanotechnology Initiative Strategic Plan addressing nanotechnology. Also, there is an interagency coordination of activities occurring within the Nanotechnology, Environment and Health Working Group, whose priorities include facilitating the identification/prioritization of research and other activities required for responsible nanotechnology.

To sum it up, in the long term, nanotechnology will demand a revolutionary rethinking of occupational health and safety, Howard notes. We are at the beginning stages of advancing this technology, so we must act now and stay ahead of the contamination issues relating to this topic.