A nanotechnology policy framework for Canada

Toronto, Canada (GLOBE-Net) – Nanotechnology could be the single most important technological advance of this new century, but nanotechnology research and development must be enhanced through regulation and policy which protects human health and our environment, says the Canadian Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (CIELAP).

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture materials at the scale of between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm). One nanometer is a billionth of a meter, which is about a hundred thousand times smaller than the cross section width of a human hair, and a thousand times smaller than a red blood cell.

According to CIELAP, the policy challenges for nanotechnology are enormous, and currently are dominated by a lack both of scientific information and also of basic policy tools, including definitions and metrology; a legal and regulatory framework; and structures and resources for public engagement.

In 2006 alone, $12.4 billion was invested in nanotechnology research and development worldwide, and over $50 billion worth of nano-enabled products were sold, notes CIELAP. What makes the technology so valuable is that materials at this scale can exhibit novel properties that are different from the same substance’s properties at the macro or even micro scales. Colour, conductivity, reactivity, and a host of other properties alter in surprising and potentially useful ways.

Nanotechnology is currently used in hundreds of products, including consumer products such as clothing, cosmetics, bedding, jewelry, sporting goods, nutritional and personal care items, and it holds tremendous potential for breakthroughs in medicine, in the production of clean water and energy, and in computers and electronics.

While the environmental and health effects of nanomaterials are largely unknown, a number of studies have found that nanoscale particles are substantially more toxic and reactive biologically than larger particles of the same material.

Author Susan Holtz describes twelve key elements which she says must be addressed in any Canadian policy framework for nanotechnology. Some of them include public education and engagement; science and research support; commercialization; social and economic benefits; consumer protection; and labelling of nanomaterials in consumer products.

Read the CIELAP report here.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its Nanotechnology White Paper in March, examining the science issues and needs associated with nanotechnology.

In the paper, the EPA acknowledges that rapid development of nanotechnology and the increasing production of nano-materials and nano-products present both opportunities and challenges. At this early juncture in nanotechnology’s development, there is an opportunity to develop approaches that will allow production, use, recycling, and eventually disposal of nano-materials in ways that protect human health and safeguard the natural environment, notes the EPA.

However, according to a report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a review of existing EPA authorities reveals a large number of weaknesses. Author J. Clarence Davies evaluates the EPA’s record of nanotechnology regulation, and provides 25 specific recommendations for the future.

Nanotechnology and the Environmental sector

Environmental applications for nanotechnology are numerous: water and wastewater treatment, renewable energy, efficient building materials, remediation technologies, environmental sensors, and many others. Using nano-materials in applications that advance in applications that advance green chemistry and engineering and lead to the development of environmental sensors and remediation technologies may provide new tools for preventing, identifying, and solving environmental problems.

Nanotechnology has the potential to contribute to the viability of water resources, such as through recycling and desalinization. For example, nanotechnology-based flow-through capacitors have been designed that desalinize seawater using one-tenth of the energy of state-of-the-art reverse osmosis and one-hundredth the energy of distillation systems.

There are also possibilities for nanotechnology to contribute to reductions in energy demand through lighter materials for vehicles, materials and geometries that contribute to more effect temperature control, technologies that improve manufacturing process efficiency, materials that increase the efficiency of electrical components and transmission lines, and materials that could contribute to a new generation of fuel cells and a potential hydrogen economy. However, because the manufacture of nano-materials can be energy-intensive, it is important to consider the entire product lifecycle in developing and analyzing these technologies.

Other nanotechnology applications in energy include solid-state lighting, and a new type of highly efficient photovoltaic cell that consists of quantum dots connected by carbon nanotubes. Canada is developing strong research and development capacity in nanotechnology solutions, partly through the new Nanotechnology Institute located in Edmonton.

In the federal government’s recently released Science and Technology strategy, nanotechnologies were identified as important research areas which have the potential to “revolutionize how we work and live and resolve a number of energy and environmental challenges”. The strategy also recognizes the need to address potential risks to human health and the environment in order to capture maximum benefits from this sector, and outlines plans for developing ‘strong science and effective regulation’ in this area.

For More Information: CIELAP

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