Common guidelines become standard fare


Groups worldwide rally to bring consistency to nano

By Matt Kelly

A little bit of the mystery has gone out of nanotechnology. And that, everyone agrees, is a good thing.

Late last year engineers for the first time endorsed a standard specifically for nanotechnology: P1650, a method of describing the electrical properties of carbon nanotubes. The announcement came on the heels of another standards initiative. In November, the International Standards Organization (ISO) created a committee to forge nanotech standards.

Two years in the making, P1650 was ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in December. More are coming, and researchers insist such specifications cannot arrive soon enough.

“We need this big time,” said Jonathan Tucker, an industry consultant with Keithley Instruments Inc. in Cleveland, which makes testing equipment. “If I buy a jar of carbon nanotubes, to the naked eye it just looks like carbon black. I have no clue what I really have there.”

Determining what other people have has vexed nanotech researchers for years. Without standard means of testing nanoscale devices, or even standard terms to define what those devices are, researchers cannot reliably reproduce other scientists’ results. Manufacturers cannot scale up production of a prototype they create. Those sorts of obstacles prevent commercialization of basic nanotech research from moving forward.

“This is definitely important to the industry,” said Michael Holman, an analyst with Lux Research. Some of Lux’s large corporate clients, he said, are hesitant to pursue nanotech vigorously because of the lack of standards. “They’ve found that the materials advertised on the Web site are one thing, but what they’re actually able to deliver is often another. ... It’s held them back in some cases.”

P1650 represents a first step to remedy the situation. The standard directs nanotube manufacturers to describe the tubes’ length, diameter and number of walls, along with other basic characteristics. While nobody is required to obey the standard, IEEE officials hope nanotube manufacturers will voluntarily obey so their products are more attractive to prospective customers.

From here, however, the remedy only gets more difficult. P1650 only addresses electrical engineering concerns about nanotubes. According to Daniel Gamota, a researcher at Motorola Corp. who led the IEEE’s P1650 working group, that focus made the standard “pretty simple” to define. Future standards that tackle more complicated subjects will be more challenging because nanotechnology cuts across so many disciplines.

Already, for example, the IEEE is developing another standard: P1690, to describe the properties of nanotubes when they are additives to bulk materials. That idea cuts across chemical, thermal and mechanical engineering, so more people must sit at the table to hash out the details. Gamota admitted “this one could be tougher.”

Circumstances are much the same for nanotech standards in life sciences. ASTM International has taken the lead on that front with a working group led by the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory. The NCL has proposed 12 protocols to measure and describe nanoparticles’ effects on living tissue, and already sent four of them to an ASTM subcommittee so private sector participants can give input.

NCL director Scott McNeil said nanoparticles are tricky to characterize because many are naturally fluorescent or interact with enzymes. Fluorescence and enzymes are two common tools to describe microbes, so the NCL must devise a whole new “characterization kit” for nanoparticles rather than use a pre-existing one.

The four standards that have gone to ASTM for review so far address how a particle reacts to blood cells; cell death; cytotoxicity; and a reactive test to see how nanoparticles affect samples of bone marrow. McNeil expects decisions on the standards within the next six months.

NNCO director Clayton Teague spearheads U.S. efforts to create standards in nanotechnology. Photo courtesy of the NNCO
Click here to enlarge image

Globally, the ISO brought together representatives from 22 nations in London in November to discuss what standards to address first. The top candidates were metrology, health and environmental safety, and terminology. Working groups were created for each. Canada now leads the terminology group, Japan the metrology, and the United States the health and environmental.

Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and the U.S. point man on standards, now chairs a technical advisory group to develop ISO standards and to cooperate with other groups like IEEE and ASTM on their work. The ISO’s technical committee, Teague said, will reconvene in June and “there’s full expectation that we’ll have quite a number of work items to put on the table for consideration, and action will formally be taken by then.”

Expect to see some ISO technical reports or public specifications on nanotech about one year from now, Teague said. Such documents don’t have the force of a standard, but they are good indicators of where standard-setting bodies want to go. A fully ratified standard - which would be called ISO 229, with various sub-standards tacked on - could take three years to adopt.

And of all needed standards, Teague said, the most important is simple terminology: “a major area of unmet need.” Even basic wording to describe nanoscale items remains imprecise, and without that language the technology will never be able to mature.

John Miller, vice president of intellectual property at Arrowhead Research Corp., notes that the United States alone has granted patents regarding carbon “nanotubes,” “nanostructures,” and “nanofibers” when all the applications sought to patent essentially the same thing.

“This is gradually being solved at the patent office, but it does create broad and overlapping patents... with different examiners looking at similar applications with differing claim language,” he said. “The problem will emerge when products come to market and people start suing each other.”

That’s one standard procedure nanotech researchers hope to avoid.