Nanotechnology has piqued the interest of popular science enthusiasts, investors and scientists for more than a decade, perhaps because the new ability to manipulate matter at the atomic scale promises to revolutionize so many disparate fields of technological development.
Although nanotechnology is a relatively young field, its practical achievements include use in improved electric car batteries, increased crop yield production with slow-release fertilizer, and bolstering the ability of the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
Though experiments with nanoscale matter date back to the Roman Empire, nanotechnology first took center stage as a field of its own in 1996 when the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the discovery of C60 fullerenes, or the Buckminsterfullerene (Bucky Balls).
Then again in 2016, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for the design and synthesis of molecular machines. Proponents of nanotechnology laud its emergence as the catalyst of the next industrial revolution. Economic contributions forecast an annual associated value of one trillion dollars (revenue from nano-enabled products grew worldwide from $339 billion in 2010 to more than $1 trillion in 2013).
The U.S. government first established the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) under the Clinton administration, to support world-class research, user facilities, and technology transfer from lab to commercial enterprise. As a result of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003, NNI agencies are required to update an NNI Strategic Plan every three years. The most recent version was published in 2016, which outlines goals for nanotechnology research, development, and commercialization enterprises.
As a result of authority provided in the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (Public Law 114-182), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule on nanomaterial reporting for those who manufacture, process, or import such materials for commercial purposes. The new rule will allow EPA to gather risk-relevant information on nanoscale materials, which is essential for understanding and managing potential risks to health and the environment.
Stakeholders are still grappling with how to legally define nanomaterials in a way that is broadly accurate and useful in terms of supporting categorization and management.
Indeed, there is not even broad consensus that a strict deductive definition would constitute the most useful approach to developing policies regarding innovation and protection of human and environmental health; however, the absence of a globally agreed upon definition poses challenges to agencies charged with regulating these novel materials.
Some have moved ahead with the idea that an inductive definition is the better way to advance the science to the point that it could support rational regulation. Meaning, you can point to an example and address it as a nanomaterial, but you may not be able to create a universal definition that applies across all instances of a nanoscale material.
Thus far, initial forays into proposing policies to address nanomaterial management have arisen on a case by case basis in reaction to either specific products being registered with the EPA, or in reaction to revisions and updates to environmental protection laws.
National and international consortia of scientists and regulators are beginning work to standardize data formatting to enable the sharing and comparing of information. These efforts within the growing field of nanoinformatics are new, and are characterized by considerable uncertainty and variability since the methods and materials involved in nanotechnology are still under development.
Therefore, the near-term goals are to develop suggested standards, and processes for developing and communicating new standards, within the nanomaterial research communities. Longer term, the field of nanoinformatics will ideally mature to provide a well-defined consistent set of data requirements and supporting controlled vocabulary not unlike what developed to support the human genome project. Such a consistent system of integrated tracking and communication of peer-reviewed nanomaterial studies would be used to guide new research directions as well as enable cross-study analyses to guide regulation agencies in policy development.
Policy developments on the topic of data standardization will also be covered within the nanotechnology vertical, since consistently integrated datasets will serve as the driver of data submission requirements as well as interpretation of those data with respect to emerging policy.
Nancy Birkner oversees the development and publication of SciPol content related to this topic. She is also a Postdoctoral Associate at the Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT) where she works to enable global sharing of nanomaterial data.
For her scientific interests, Nancy studies the fundamental nature of nanomaterials, which are materials that are thousands of times smaller than the eye can see. These materials behave (or react) much differently than larger-scale materials and may impact the health and safety of humans and the environment as well as produce disruptive technologies to benefit of society. Her Ph.D. in Chemistry produced three new major science discoveries using experimental nanomaterial thermodynamics under the supervision of Professor Alexandra Navrotsky, who is also fondly referred to as “The mother of thermodynamics”. Nancy’s work is published in Science magazine as well as in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
CEINT (ceint.duke.edu) is examining the relationships between nanomaterial (natural and man-made) interactions with biological, ecological, and environmental systems. The Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology NanoInformatics Knowledge Commons (CEINT-NIKC), headquartered at Duke University, is developing the integrative methodologies, unique cyberinfrastructure, and associated analytical tools that will allow interrogation of nanomaterial research.
Visit scipol.duke.edu for news, updates, and opportunities to engage in Nanotechnology policy developments.