(NHI Nanoblog) It’s nanotechnology’s dirty little secret: Applications using super-small materials may hold great promise, but making them often comes at a high cost in terms of energy, water or the use of scary chemicals.
James E. Hutchison wants to change that—and he’s starting in his own laboratory.
Hutchison, pictured, is a professor at the University of Oregon and the director of the Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Initiative.
For too long, he said, nano development has been balkanized into two groups: one developing applications, and the other working on the potential implications to the environment and people of those new inventions.
Over the past five years, as safety has emerged as a real priority, he said, there is more overlap. But ideally, developers will soon think about safety before they invent, rather than worrying about it later.
“The vision that we’ve had is to really enhance that feedback loop between those two groups,” Hutchison said.
He outlined some of his ideas at this week’s International Conference on the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, held at Duke University. The school is a partner in the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Nanotechnology leverages super-small particles (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) to create products with remarkable properties. These materials can make bike frames lighter and stronger and sunscreen more transparent on the skin, as well as new medical instruments and medicines that can save lives. It’s also often touted as a way to promote renewable energy, from smaller, better batteries to thinner, lighter solar panels.
There is broad agreement that nanomaterials have lots of potential for a wide variety of applications. Shrinking these substances can change their properties; scientists are struggling to figure out whether, how and why that shift can make them dangerous in the process.
One example of making “green chemistry” a deeper shade, Hutchison said, is the creation of gold nanoparticles. The traditional method involved using two highly toxic gases. It was dangerous, he said, but also difficult and made only small batches.
A new method developed by his students uses more benign materials—and, in the process, is both cheaper and yields more particles.
Another way to get greener, Hutchison said, is to change the way scientists purify nanoparticles, which is a key step in getting a substance that works well in a test environment. Whether it’s water or chemicals that are being used, he said, reducing the resources needed is a positive step.
In addition, Hutchison said, researchers need to look beyond their labs toward the consumer products and “intermediate” materials that use nanoparticles. Encouraging manufacturers to avoid using toxic elements at all is one way to avoid trouble down the line, he said, as is developing production methods that use less energy and resources.
“One of the things I’m trying to put out as often as possible is ‘greener,’‘’ he said. “Is it greener than green tea extract? No.”