Standards for Nanotechnology

What is a Standard?

Do you know your weight in pounds? How about in kilograms? Or in stones?? The need for standards may not be obvious until you realize that we use them every day.

When it comes to standards, the fundamental units of measurement, The International System of Units (abbreviated SI from French: Le Système International d'Unités) form the basis for most measurements and underpin global trade and commerce. These standards are vital to continued progress in nanotechnology research and development, and for safe, secure, and responsible commercialization of nanotechnology in the years ahead.

However, progress in nanotechnology depends on more than just standard units. In order to ensure consistency, repeatability, and accuracy there must be standards of practice (e.g., procedures and guidelines) and standards for verification (e.g., reference materials). In this way, we can categorize standards broadly into measurement standards, reference standards, and documentary standards.

Types of Standards

Measurement Standards

The International System of Units has seven base quantities: length, mass, time, electric current, thermodynamic temperature, amount of substance, and luminous intensity. Their respective base units—the meter, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, mole, and candela—are often combined to make derived units such as the joule (energy, work, heat), hertz (frequency), and volt (electrical potential). All are relevant to nanotechnology, in particular, the unit of length at the nanoscale, the nanometer. This is a standard prefix unit that is derived from the base unit meter by subdividing the meter by a factor of one billion.

SI units standard prefixes table

A derived unit important to nanotechnology is the unit of force, the Newton. The force exerted by the cantilevers used in atomic force microscopes is typically specified in terms of nanoNewtons or one-billionth of a Newton.  (For reference, a Newton is force about equal to the weight of an apple on Earth.)

Reference Standards

Reference material standards are used to verify a quantitative measurement. These are materials that are typically issued by a standards laboratory such as a national measurement institute and certified to have specified characteristics referenced to the fundamental SI system of physical units of measurement, when measured in a prescribed manner. The International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), located in Sèvres near Paris, France, has the task of ensuring world-wide uniformity of measurements and their traceability to the SI basic units.

Documentary Standards

Documentary standards are agreed-upon processes or specifications for a field of science, engineering, or technology; they represent the consensus viewpoint of the experts developing the standard on aspects such as procedures for conducting measurements; performance characteristics of instruments or commercial products, etc. Thus, they are documented approaches that play a very important role in facilitating trade and commerce.

Illustrative examples of documentary standards available for nanomaterials (see below for definition of acronyms used in the "Identifier” column.)

Table showing nanotechnology standards

Who Sets Standards?

Around the world, there are numerous standards-setting organizations in which nanotechnology standards development is taking place. Some examples of the leading standards-setting organizations and their relevant nanotechnology committees developing international standards are (in no particular order):

These groups develop voluntary consensus standards. Standards that are the best formulated, with the strongest basis in science, are most likely to be adopted by the global community. U.S. leadership and participation in the international standards-setting process allows the United States to help shape the strategic and technical direction of nanotechnology development everywhere. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which hosts a Nanotechnology Standards Database coordinates the participation of U.S. private sector and federal government experts in nanotechnology standards development in ISO.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a U.S. Federal Government agency is the nation’s measurement institute and plays a key role in facilitating the development of standards in a range of technological areas. There is active federal agency participation in nanotechnology standards development in ASTM Committee E56 on Nanotechnology. A U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) (accredited by ANSI) represents the United States at ISO TC 229, Nanotechnologies. This TAG is responsible for formulating positions and proposals on behalf of the United States with regard to ISO standardization activities related to nanotechnology. The U.S. also holds leadership of ISO TC 229’s Working Group 3: Health, Safety and Environmental Aspects of Nanotechnologies, with over 5 federal agencies actively participating in the standards development in ISO TC229.