Life-Cycle Tests Needed to Shape Nanotech's Future

Life-Cycle Tests Needed to Shape Nanotech's Future

30 billion in 2005 to $2.6 trillion by 2014. And because there are quite a few uncertainties about long-term effects posed by these products -- nanoparticles have been shown to cause brain damage in fish, and toxic materials like cadmium are used in some nanotech products -- the authors of a new report urge the adoption of full life-cycle assessment programs for nanotech projects.

The report, "Nanotechnology and Life Cycle Assessment: A Systems Approach to Nanotechnology and the Environment," was produced by The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and the European Commission's nanotechnology unit. Although emerging technologies have not in the past been subject to life-cycle assessments, the report notes that other new technologies, notably alternative energy programs, have benefited from an early look at possible impacts. Considering the potentially wide scope and broad applications of this technology, the authors suggested nanotech is ripe for LCA consideration.

"It is important that nanotechnology, which has the potential to improve the quality of life in all parts of the world, is developed in a responsible way. This includes conducting the research and development needed to take into account the impact of nanomaterials and products throughout their whole life cycle," noted Renzo Tomellini, head of the E.C.'s Nano- and Converging Sciences and Technologies Unit.

According to the report, wisely implemented assessment tools such as LCA can help corporations and researchers determine likely environmental impacts at various stages in a new nanotechnology product's life cycle. It also helps governments, industry and consumers compare the environmental performance of a new nanotech product with that of conventional products already on the market.

The report stems from discussions among 27 international nanotechnology and LCA experts at a two-day workshop held in October 2006. The report concludes that the existing International Organization for Standardization and other widely used frameworks for LCA are fully applicable to nanomaterials and nanoproducts, even if the same newness of nanotechology will result in some limitations to the assessments.

"The lack of toxicity data specific to nanomaterials is a repeating theme in this and in other studies related to nanotech environmental, health, and safety concerns," said Andrew Maynard, chief scientist for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “Nanotechnology is no longer a scientific curiosity. Its products are in the workplace, the environment, and home. But if people are to realize nanotechnology's benefits -- in electronics, medicine, sustainable energy, and better materials for building, clothing and packaging -- the federal government needs an effective risk research strategy and sufficient funding in agencies responsible for oversight to do the job.”

“The report calls for international cooperation and coordination -- among governments, university researchers, corporations, and consumer and other groups -- to help address critical data needs,” according to Project visiting scientist Barbara Karn. “It also highlights the need for nano-specific protocols and practical methodologies for toxicology studies, fate and transport studies, and scaling approaches.”

The full report is available for download from GreenBiz, and more information is on The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies website.