Response to the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering
Request for Initial Views on the New Study on Nanotechnology from
the National Physical Laboratory

On the five areas of the study given in the Royal Society request for initial views, our comments are as follows:

Q1. Define what is meant by Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and to summarise the current state of scientific knowledge about these fields;

A. Nanoscience and Nanotechnology concern the study and application of matter at scales below 100nm and where the properties are significantly different from those at greater scales arising from entering a regime where different constitutive laws operate or the transition from classical to quantum behaviour occurs. The current state of knowledge is such that some of the basic physics and chemistry are known but much less of the bioscience. Enough is known to indicate that there is much more to be learned and very significant gains are to be made in their application.

Q2. Identify the specific applications of the new technologies, in particular where nanotechnology is already in use, how it might be used in future and the most likely timeframe for such developments;

A. Specific applications are already in use in the materials sciences and healthcare where significant improvements are well established. For example, high efficiency nanoparticle sunscreens, which absorb radical electrons (a cause of DNA damage), self cleaning windows, magnetic read heads for high density data storage, controlled release drug delivery and DNA chip arrays for rapid diagnostics.

The areas where major developments will occur are in healthcare (site specific drug and gene delivery systems, tissue engineering, nerve regeneration, gene therapy, lifetime lasting implants, sensors and point-of-care diagnosis) the environment (anti-corrosion coatings, friction-free coatings, higher efficiency combustion, integrated sensors, reduced emissions and waste) and information technology (high bandwidth communications, high density data storage and quantum computing) as well as defence (stealth coatings, chemical and biological agent sensors, biological mop up molecules).

The efficient and commercial development of these areas will need a proper and developing metrology and standards infrastructure for control and characterisation products and processes related to nanotechnology. The developments in these areas will occur from now with some extending to even beyond the 30 year horizon with intermediate benefits accruing in the interim with some of the topics. For more information see the DTI report “New Dimensions for Manufacturing : A UK Strategy for Nanotechnology”

Worldwide estimates are that the global market in nanotechnology could be worth over $1 trillion in a decade.

Other publications which might be of interest to the Working Group can be found at:

Q3. Assess the potential health, safety and environmental impacts of the applications of nanotechnology (including an indication of the associated uncertainties);

A. The health and environmental impacts will be very positive in that new drug delivery systems will be developed involving smaller and more targeted doses so that side effects are reduced, medical diagnostics are less invasive, many forms of equipment are more efficient using less power, new less toxic processes are developed leading to lower emissions and less waste. Counter to that will be the production of finer powders and similar new materials and structures where the transdermal or respiratory toxicity is, as yet, unknown – this may only be a problem where the powder is the product rather than an intermediate product in the manufacturing process.

Q4. Consider the ethical and social issues surrounding the development of this technology;

A. Nanotechnology per se has few negative ethical and social issues that are different from any other field. Topics in nano-bio have issues that are exactly the same as for bio in general (diagnostic arrays for rapid gene testing will be an issue). The same goes for drug development. It may well be that certain developments in nano-bio could reduce the needs for animal testing of drugs. The most visible social effect of similar technological advances in the past has been a widespread increase in the wealth and well being of society. The societal benefits for the micro-revolution have been enormous and were not all imaginable at the outset. The same will be true for nanotechnology. An obvious issue is that advanced technologies require investment and much of envisaged nanotechnology products are ideally geared to volume production so that those not with these products may rapidly find their market vanishing with concomitant impact of loss of jobs and closure of companies.

Q5. Identify areas where additional regulation needs to be considered.

A. It goes without saying that any regulatory or control proposals must be based on sound metrology. References to particles, molecules or structures of specific size and type assumes the ability to identify and measure them. NPL is uniquely placed to advise on what is possible and to develop the necessary standards if required. The policy aspect of regulation, of course, lies with the Government, but NPL can advise on the relevant measurement related issues.

Regulatory aspects may need to be tightened on certain toxicity levels concerning quantity or particle size if research shows this to be important – at present adequate methods are not available for readily detecting and measuring particles that are very small, particularly if composition and size are required simultaneously. Quantitative/traceable (i.e. valid) measurement methods run out at about 1 micron. These issues will need new simple, accurate metrology tools. NPL in association with the Department of Trade and Industry is reviewing future metrology needs for commercialisation of nanotechnology. Similarly, we are working with BSI and the European Standards organisation, CEN, to identify future standards needs for the development and efficient application of nanotechnology.

National Physical Laboratory