One of the biggest hurdles facing the nanotechnology industry is the lack of knowledge in testing for potential hazards to health and environmental impact, according to the director of a Texas Technology Center that focuses on ways to use the emerging technology.
"It's not just that we don't know the hazards," said Dr. Walt Trybula, "we don't even know what to test for."
Trybula is the director of the Nanomaterials Application Center at Texas State University -- San Marcos, and sees a bright future for commercial development in the field.
"Industry has been quick to adopt nanotechnology, based solely on the attributes of the materials that have been created," said Trybula. Automobile bumpers are being installed that are one-third the weight of steel, but are stronger than steel and twice as resistant to scratching and denting.
"That sort of performance improvement is impossible to ignore."
In the field of wound care, companies are marketing bandages that contain an anti-microbial agent -- nano silver particles -- that promote healing.
"But, because of the unknowns, the EPA has already issued guidelines on these types of applications," explained Trybula. The concern is that nanosilver particles could pose a danger to beneficial bacteria in the environment, in addition to killing human germs.
"There is no single body, or organization or repository for collecting and disseminating information on the risks that could be posed by this exciting new technology," said Trybula. "At this point, we mostly don't even know how to test all these products." Trybula sees the opportunities in testing for potential hazards as just as important as developments in the nanotechnology field itself. One company that offers promise in the testing and standardization area is a Houston-based startup, nanoTox(TM).
The company has joined the Nanomaterials Application Center and is moving to set up a testing lab to develop procedures to evaluate nanomaterials for potential risks. An added advantage of leading the field in this effort is that this proactive stance will provide the basis for a scientific approach to the issues and, hopefully, the issues will not be driven by numerous special interest groups. This will be a service to the community at large, said Trybula.