Highlights of Recent Research on the Environmental, Health, and Safety Implications of Engineered Nanomaterials

Subject Area:
NNI Publications and Reports
Author: NNI/NSET Subcommittee
Publication Date: Sep. 1 2017

Nanotechnology involves harnessing the unique properties of materials at the nanoscale to enable innovation. Nanotechnology has an established role in fields as diverse as electronics, energy, environmental remediation, and medicine. Addressing potential nanotechnology-related environmental, health, and safety (nanoEHS) issues is essential to the safe and responsible development of nanomaterials and nanotechnology-enabled products—a key goal of the U.S. Government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) [1]. While considerable progress has been made in characterizing the potential risk posed by engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), research and development of products and devices containing nanomaterials (nanotechnology-enabled products, or NEPs) continues at a rapid and accelerating pace. The evolving applications of nanotechnology require continuously refining and advancing ways to detect, measure, and assess ENM behavior in settings that reflect realistic workplace, consumer, and environmental exposures in order to develop effective management strategies. Furthermore, by ensuring that a robust scientific framework is available for evaluating nanomaterial applications, nanoEHS research promotes productivity in advanced materials and manufacturing.
Well-coordinated nanoEHS research is thus essential to establishing the public confidence and regulatory certainty needed for the commercial success of NEPs. The NNI’s nanoEHS activities are coordinated through the Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications (NEHI) Working Group of the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council, and by the NNI Coordinator for EHS Research. Including additional nanoEHS-related activities associated with the NNI Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (www.nano.gov/signatureinitiatives), the total NNI nanoEHS investment for fiscal year (FY) 2016 is estimated at approximately $150 million, accounting for about 10% of the overall NNI investment.
NNI agencies continue to be guided by the 2011 NNI EHS Research Strategy. The strategy aims to ensure responsible development of nanotechnology and identifies the following six core research categories:
  • Nanomaterial Measurement Infrastructure
  • Human Exposure Assessment
  • Human Health; Environment
  • Risk Assessment and Risk Management Methods and
  • Informatics and Modeling.
NNI agencies participating in NEHI have individually and collectively undertaken a range of activities to address the six research areas. These research categories support the goal of creating a comprehensive knowledge base for evaluating the potential risks of nanotechnology, and ultimately for enabling effective and broader risk management options where necessary. The following select examples represent important milestones and new knowledge gained from recent nanoEHS research, and updates the 2014 Progress Review on the 2011 EHS Research Strategy. This information is merely a small sample of NNI-supported research in the peer-reviewed literature and in publicly available agency documents.

Nanotechnology Fact

Although federally-funded R&D yields hard-to-quantify benefits such as students educated, degrees conferred, companies started, patents and copyrights granted, developmental partnerships formed, and private sector investment inflows, there are many indicators of the impact of this ­­­­­investment.

For example, there are over 1,900 U.S.-based companies conducting R&D, manufacturing, or product sales in nanotechnology in 2016. Of these companies engaged in the nanotechnology sector, over 36% have participated in the Small Business Innovation Research or Small Business Technology Transfer programs funded by the Federal agencies that participate in the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The most recent Business R&D and Innovation Survey (BRDIS) conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found approximately 1,500 companies engaged in nanotechnology with approximately 1,100 of these classified as small businesses (less than 500 employees). The difference in the number of companies cited above can be attributed to the year the data was collected and other methodologies.

A noteworthy impact of the NNI has been the focused investment by NNI-participating agencies in the establishment and development of multidisciplinary research and education centers devoted to nanoscience and nanotechnology. NNI agencies have developed an extensive infrastructure of nearly 100 major interdisciplinary research and education centers and user facilities across the United States. This cutting-edge fabrication and characterization equipment provides state-of-the-art nanoscience tools and expertise for research by non-profit or business organizations, whether small or large, for use-inspired research and some of the user facilities are available free-of-charge for non-proprietary work if the user intends to publish the research results in the scientific literature.

In December 2015, Lux Research estimated that nanotechnology-enabled products generated $1.6 trillion in global revenues in 2014; and that figure is anticipated to increase to $3.5 trillion in 2018.

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