Nanotechnology risks

Technology: Taming the Nanotech Risks

"If regulators overreact because they are being underinformed about what the risks are and what they aren't, other countries will take advantage of that and it will force companies that would otherwise be here creating technology and high-paying manufacturing jobs to go someplace else," says Craig Bandes, CEO of Pixelligent Technologies.

Like many in the nanotech industry, CEO Craig Bandes' Baltimore-based nanocrystal additive manufacturing company, Pixelligent Technologies, has enjoyed a record year for growth.

"Things are moving quickly in the nanotechnology world," he says. "Large manufacturers are all looking for next-generation solutions to help evolve their technologies. Companies like ours can help them do it."

However, as the nanotechnology market expands, so too does the scrutiny it is receiving about the potential health and safety risks it presents. 

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Though no conclusive evidence has yet been found linking nanomaterials to specific health risks, this scrutiny -- and the attendant buzz from a public anxious for results -- has prompted the EPA to invest millions in research over the last few years to determine the exact nature of the risk and what regulations should follow. 

To some, this scenario is a little too reminiscent of the early days of asbestos -- a scenario no one, no matter how promising the technology, wants to repeat.

Nanoparticle contamination before and after remediation. Photo FM Global

This, Bandes fears, might be enough to derail the progress nanotechnology has made. "The U.S. has a great opportunity here with the potential revenue dollars that will come from nano-enabled products," he says. "If regulators overreact because they are being underinformed about what the risks are and what they aren't, other countries will take advantage of that and it will force companies that would otherwise be here creating technology and high-paying manufacturing jobs to go someplace else."

That, however, is something that Lou Gritzo, head of research at FM Global is determined to prevent.

Taking on the Clean-Up Challenge

FM Global, a Boston-based commercial industrial insurance company, has a keen interest in keeping its nanotechnology clients on the growth track. "Our whole goal is to protect the value of our clients," he explains. "Nanotechnology represents one of those areas where there is a tremendous opportunity to innovate, but it also comes with some risk."

To protect his clients from the uncertainty surrounding that risk, Gritzo and his team have taken an unusual step to address at least part of the problem themselves. "Rather than going down a traditional remediation path, we started looking at ways we could leapfrog that fog of uncertainty and come up with some ways that would help clients in case of an accidental release," he explains.

To do this, he teamed up with scientists at Northeastern University to develop a simple method to clean up a nanoparticle spill that would allow companies to return to business as quickly as possible.

The results of the Northeastern University study show that the SDBS and SDS solvents provide the maximum remediation potential. Credit FM Global

Led by Northeastern Professor Ashkan Vaziri, the research team constructed a unique quantifiable measure for particle release and developed solutions to break down and absorb the contamination -- two things most nanoparticles are specifically designed to resist.

His early results are impressive, finding two "common" chemicals that can remove over 95% of the contamination. "Nanoparticles want to get attracted to the surface of objects after a spill, but with specific solutions we found the nanoparticles also want to get dissolved in the liquid. That's the part that really helps cut the contamination," Vaziri says. 

Combined with the mature technologies for respiratory protection, these solutions may be enough to offset some of the risks that promise to hold up nanotech developments, Gritzo says. 

"We're creating a solutions that will allow our clients to get back to business after a release," he says. "It will ensure that their people are safe and we avoid the potential of contamination that affects property and business and all of the things that can pose real risks to commercial industrial properties." 

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