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By Brian Jacobsmeyer
Large research gaps within the field of nanotechnology need to be filled to address growing concerns about safety, environmental and health issues, according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences. But scientists remain divided over how to fill these gaps.
Increasingly, manufacturers have been taking advantage of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) for a variety of products. Sunscreen made with ENMs, for instance, allows for better protection and coverage because the abundance of particles provides greater surface area. And newly developed artificial joints may benefit from sturdier nanodiamond coatings that reduce wear and tear.
In total, ENMs accounted for $225 billion in sales in 2009. Although experts within the physics community agree that more research needs to be done on these materials, most believe that increasing nanomaterial use should not be cause for immediate alarm.
“You have to keep your sanity about these things. People hear ‘nano,’ and they go hysterical,” said Ivan Schuller, a physicist specializing in nanotechnology at the University of California San Diego who was not involved with the report. “But of course, studies have to be made to see if there are real dangers.”
Risks posed by ENMs–and the amount of research on these risks –vary depending on the types of nanomaterials. While nanomaterials used in electronics have been around for awhile and are generally considered safe, scientists know less about the health implications of emerging applications in areas like cosmetics and medical drug delivery.
By building upon existing collaborative efforts within the government, members of the panel responsible for the report hope to better assess these potential risks. Since 2001, the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) has served as a centralized government program, and it now links together the nanotechnology work of 25 different agencies.
More interagency communication could help move research forward, said panel member Martin Fritts, a nanotechnology physicist at SAIC-Frederick, a National Cancer Institute contractor.
“The main obstacle is you have different areas that [agencies] are trying to attack,” said Fritts. “Not everyone is going after the same thing.”
Different agencies address different areas, ranging from broad environmental impacts to more specific health effects of prolonged exposure to nanomaterials. Consequently, agencies can have a difficult time providing financial support for collaborative efforts that also align with their mandated research programs. With more authority and funding, the NNCO could more easily pursue areas that are useful and common to all agencies, said Fritts.
But the NNCO has a somewhat conflicting mandate itself. NNCO’s mission charges it with promoting nanotechnology advances while simultaneously acting as a buffer against potential risks.
“In one sense you’re looking to slow down research, and in the other you’re trying to expand it,” Fritts said.
Other obstacles to ENM research advances extend beyond government policy and pervade the wider scientific community, according to the report. In particular, cultural problems that dictate how science should be presented constitute a barrier to studying ENMs thoroughly, said Fritts.
“What would really help is something to counteract how scientists interact,” said Fritts. “There are not enough good databases, not enough raw data.”
In an effort to facilitate data sharing, the National Science Foundation has funded the increasingly popular Nanohub.org website. Nanohub provides a place for researchers and students to share data, simulations and other resources related to nanotechnology.
Nanohub originated in 2001 as a part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative set forth by the Clinton administration. Since then, the website has developed a dedicated user base, and the site served 200,000 users over the past year.
Krishna Madhavan, an engineering education professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, has been working on the Nanohub website for years. Madhavan hopes to make running simulations easier for scientists by providing computational solutions all in one place.
“[Researchers] shouldn’t have to build their own web infrastructure or computational infrastructure,” Madhavan said. “Nanohub will find the proper resource and push the code out to run where it needs to run.”
As part of its mission, Nanohub aims to maintain research data and simulations that aren’t published in journals due to space restrictions. For example, a graduate student may have years worth of code left over at the time of graduation, but that code may never leave his lab. Nanohub administrators hope that publishing that work can benefit the nanotechnology community long after a student’s graduation.
Despite growing support for open databases like Nanohub, not all physicists are convinced that these repositories are helpful. In fact, these databases can flood researchers with too much information, according to Schuller.
In addition to acting as a database, websites like Nanohub have been promoted as a way for fellow researchers to connect. With similar approaches in the future, the government panel hopes to develop more professional relationships among researchers, leading to more fruitful research.
But Schuller contends that collaboration needs to be more organic.
“Spending a large amount of money and hoping this will revolutionize the way people interact, I think it’s been overdone,” he said. “Collaborations in science have to naturally evolve.”
Nonetheless, Schuller thinks that reports like this one have succeeded in the past by guiding future research areas: “They distill what’s important. I find these reports useful, and you don’t have to agree with everything [in the report].”
The panel will revisit the issue of nanomaterials’ health and safety impacts in about 18 months.
In the meantime, Madhavan believes that the public should rest assured that scientists are probing potential risks related to nanomaterials.
“In general, the people doing this kind of work are very serious people,” he said. “They’re very careful.”
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