The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering study on Nanotechnology. Response to request for initial views from the BNFL

Nanotechnology: An End Users Perspective

Nanoscience and nanotechnology is difficult to ignore. If reports are to be believed then it is set to revolutionise every aspect of our daily lives and any industry not embracing this new technology is potentially putting its business at risk. Whilst there is no doubt that nanotechnology will have an impact on industry the scale of that impact and the timescales are less certain. In the nuclear industry it is fair to say that at present we are keeping a close “watching brief” on developments. Recently we commissioned the Institute of Nanotechnology to produce a report on the potential impact of nanotechnology in nuclear decommissioning. We also have strong university links with academics who are active in the field, notably at Manchester University (Prof. Paul O’Brien) and at Leeds University (Prof. Richard Williams). BNFL is also participating in a Foresight LINK programme on Nanoparticles and this is a good example of how we are working with other industries and government sponsors to promote developments in nanotechnology.

Some of the applications that we might expect nanotechnology to impact on the nuclear industry include:

From these few examples it is not difficult to see the potential for significant impact of nanotechnology in the nuclear sector and yet reading the UK Strategy in Nanotechnology produced last year you would be forgiven for thinking there was to be little if any impact on the energy sector. Perhaps it is inevitable that the strategy focussed on applications in the electronics and medical/pharmeaceutical industries but it should not be forgotten that nanotechnology is likely to impact across the board, energy included. The UK as a whole also needs to decide on where its strengths lie and focus on areas where it is likely to be internationally competitive in the exploitation of nanotechnology ideas.

Although it is relatively easy to identify ideas and potential applications for nanotechnology it is less straightforward to judge which ideas have the potential to make a significant impact on industry. This issue is compounded because to date few nanotechnology ideas have made it to the marketplace. Over many years the nuclear industry has become quite adept at taking ideas developed and proven in other industries and applying them within a nuclear context. Hence unproven nanotechnology ideas represent risky investments for a company to buy into. Another uncertainty is in the manufacture and scale-up of nanotechnology products. Can the “bottom-up” approach to manufacturing involving the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules be carried out in a cost-effective way on a commercial scale? These kinds of concerns will act as barriers to indutrial investment in nanotechnology. It is encouraging however that the focus of the UK Strategy in Nanotechnology, produced last year by the UK Advisory Group chaired by John Taylor, is on the transfer of nanotechnology ideas into industrial applications.

It is also encouraging that the UK now has a co-ordinated strategy for nanotechnology since we were at risk of being left behind. The US, France, Japan and Canada all have centres and initiatives up and running whilst in the UK there continues to be a fragmented picture. This lack of “critical mass” of research activity will become an issue if it is not addressed soon. The very recent announcement of governement support of £90 million over 6 years to help industry exploit the commercial opportunities of nanotechnology is to be welcomed as a step in the right direction although this figure still falls short of the kind of investment being made in Germany for example. The Regional Development Agencies also have an important role to play in supporting nanotechnology activities that also benefits regional development, particularly in the North West and North East where there are regional science strategies already in place.

Currently developments in nanotechnology are increasing at such a rapid pace that it is a challenge for any industry to keep up-to-date with progress. The downside of the pace of developments is that it leads to many exaggerated claims that are more in the realm of science fiction than science fact. This has a lot to do with the public understanding of science and the way in which the media conveys the message. Certainly recent media reports that produced headlines predicting the creation of nanorobots that would get out of control and turns us all into grey goo were less than helpful in promoting the image of nanotechnology. On the other hand there are issues involved in the development of nanotechnology that must be followed cautiously for ethical and health and safety reasons. Nanopowders may have interesting and useful properties, but what of the hazards posed by the handling of these materials in bulk quantities?

A final thought. Nanotechnology is often thought of as a new technology that is slowly making its way to the marketplace. In the nuclear industry we have been making uranium oxide powders for over 30 years which have been used in the manufacture of 5 million AGR reactor fuel pins. These powders are nanostructured with primary particle sizes below 100nm. Over the past decade we have improved the powder processing operations through control of the nano-morphology of the powder. Perhaps the nuclear industry should claim to be leaders of the nanotechnology revolution.

British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL)