From nanoscale silver to titanium dioxide for air purification, the application of nanomaterials of high commercial significance proves to have strong advantages as it attracts investments, and raises apprehensions. ‘Nano’-sized materials (a nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter) could pose health and environmental hazards under specific conditions. The doubts and inadequate scientific knowledge could hold back innovation and economic growth.
How does one assess these hazards and take the suitable preventative measures? The answer can be derived from the results of the European project Sustainable Nanotechnologies Project (SUN), which has been granted 13 million euros of funding from the European Commission.
More than 100 scientists from 25 research institutions and industries in 12 different European countries organized by the group of professor Antonio Marcomini from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice have finished one of the first attempts to comprehend the hazards nanomaterials carry during their life-cycle, commencing from their fabrication and ending in being cast-off or recycled.
After three years of research in laboratories and in contact with industrial collaborators, the researchers have processed, tested, and made available an online platform (https://sunds.gd/) that supports industries and control and regulating institutions in assessing potential hazards that may arise for the production teams, for the environment, and for the consumers.
The goal is to comprehend the degree to which these hazards are sustainable, particularly in connection with the traditional materials available, and to take the suitable preventative measures. Furthermore, this tool allows the team to compare risk reduction costs with the paybacks generated by this unique product, while measuring its probable environmental impact.
The great amount of work done for developing and testing the methods and tools for evaluating and managing the risks posed by nanomaterials has not only generated an enormous amount of new scientific data and knowledge on the potential dangers of different types of nanomaterials, but has also resulted in key discoveries on the interactions between nanomaterials and biological or ecological systems and on their diffusion, on how they work and on their possible adverse consequences. These results, disseminated in over 140 research papers, have been immediately taken up by industries and regulators and will inevitably have great impact on developing safer and more sustainable nanotechnologies and on regulating their risks.
Danail Hristozov, Department of Environmental Sciences, Informatics and Statistics, Ca’ Foscari
The SUN project has also composed a guide for the safest processes and products, published on its website: www.sun.fp7.eu.
Researchers have centered their research on particular materials and their use, so as to examine the complete life cycle of the products. Two of the popular ones were selected: multi-walled carbon nanotubes that are used in automotive parts and marine coatings, and nanoscale silver that is used in textiles. Less known materials that are of great significance for their use were also included: car pigments and silica anti-caking agents used by food sector.
Finally, SUN included nanomaterials of high commercial value which are very innovative: Nitrogen-doped titanium dioxide for air purification is a new product facilitated by SUN and taken advantage by the large color ceramics company Colorobbia. The copper-based coating and impregnation for wood protection has been re-oriented according to SUN safety assessment, and the tungsten carbide based coatings for paper mills is commercialized based on SUN results.