Nanotech Conference: Advice for Start-Ups

Dec. 6, 2006
When you're a nanotechnology start-up company on a tight budget, implementing an EHS program might seem like a pie-in-the-sky proposition. But Tabitha Maher, environmental health and safety facilitator for Reno, Nev.-based Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. (Altairnano) offers this message to nascent nano businesses: "You are in control of your future."

"As small companies, you have to do something now," Maher said Monday, addressing attendees of the International Conference on Nanotechnology Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety in Cincinnati. "You can't wait until later."

Maher speaks from experience. About a year and a half ago, she was tasked with building an EHS program for Altairnano, a publicly traded start-up company that manipulates ceramic nanomaterials to develop a number of novel products, including battery cells that are designed for use in all-electric vehicles.

Nanotech start-ups should implement an EHS program to protect workers and the environment from the potential risks of exposure to nanomaterials, Maher explained. However, in an industry in which an estimated 40 percent of the businesses are start-ups, there's another important reason why small nanotech companies should focus on safety and health.

"One major slip-up among any of the nanotechnology companies really has the ability to stunt the growth of the industry as a whole," Maher asserted.

Risks, Real and Perceived

In an earlier presentation Monday, Altairnano President and CEO Alan Gotcher, Ph.D., noted that the potential safety and health risks of nanotechnology – for workers, consumers and the environment – are both real and perceived. Those risks not only include worker safety and health but also the potential for product liability lawsuits and the possibility that nanotech companies without an EHS program could be out of step with nanotech safety and health standards when they are promulgated.

Even a perceived risk – such as the public believing, rightly or wrongly, that nano-based products are harmful to human health or the environment – is a legitimate business risk for nanotech start-ups, he said.

"If we don't pay attention to [these risks] now when we grow, we may cease to exist," Gotcher said.

Elements of Altairnano's EHS Program

Altairnano's EHS program begins with worker safety and health, Gotcher said, "because [workers] touch the materials today, and they touch them in very large quantities." The company employs 80 workers at facilities in Reno, Nev., and Anderson, Ind., which, combined, have 100,000 square feet of offices, laboratories and manufacturing areas.

In the risk assessment phase of developing its EHS program, Maher explained, Altairnano was concerned about three potential routes of worker exposure to nanomaterials: inhalation, dermal uptake and ingestion.

  • To minimize the inhalation of nanomaterials, Maher explained to that all Altairnano employees are required to wear N-100 respirators. Although the company does not have a comprehensive ventilation system, according to Maher, all work areas have – at the very least – fume hoods or ventilation trunks. Workers are required to wear respirators "when they're directly working with the materials, whether they're in a hood or not," Maher said.
  • To protect workers' skin from exposure to nanomaterials, Maher told that Altairnano workers are required to wear latex gloves, laboratory coats and other PPE as well as protective sleeves "so that there's no breach between the glove and their coats."
  • To minimize ingestion of nanomaterials, Maher explained that the focus is on cleaning: cleaning the equipment after it's used; cleaning the floors when work is completed; and urging workers to wash their hands before eating. Workers do not wear their work clothes home; instead, Altairnano uses an outside cleaning service to have the clothing washed daily.

"Cleaning is a huge, huge thing," Maher said. "This avoids re-suspension in the air. It avoids workers getting exposed even when the process isn't running."

Take Advantage of "Free Research"

Altairnano measures and monitors occupational exposure to nanomaterials "using basic industrial hygiene practices" and equipment, Maher explained. However, she added that Altairnano is at a bit of an advantage compared to other nanotech companies in that regard because Altairnano's processes fuse nanoparticles into agglomerates that are measured in microns (thousands of nanometers). The handling and control characteristics of materials in this size range, according to Altairnano, are more like traditional bulk chemicals.

Still, her point to nanotech start-ups was this: "You don't need to spend a ton of money." Gravimetric sampling pumps and condensation particle counters – both of which Altairnano uses – can help companies measure occupational exposure to nanomaterials, although Maher cautioned that "you have to keep in mind what their limitations are."

As an example of such limitations, Maher noted that a condensation particle counter can provide a real-time reading in the 10- to 10,000-nanometer range, but it doesn't necessarily tell the user what the source of the particles is. In Altairnano's case, Gotcher explained that the largest source of nanomaterials in its manufacturing facility was the exhaust pipe of its propane-powered forklift trucks "by a factor of a thousand."

Cash-strapped nanotech companies should consider partnering with agencies such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to take advantage of what Maher called "free research." In Altairnano's case, NIOSH scientists recently visited Altairnano's manufacturing facility in Reno to monitor workplace air quality and chemical handling techniques. Based on its monitoring, NIOSH recommended several minor changes and a few longer-term engineering control improvements, which Altairnano says it has implemented.

"Every Drop of Water is Treated"

Among other elements of the company's EHS program, Altairnano has an on-site water treatment plant "that captures, filters, neutralizes and measures impurities for nanomaterials and any heavy metals that might be used in our manufacturing processes," according to Gotcher. He added: "Every drop of water is treated."

To address concerns about the life cycle of nanomaterials, Altairnano abuses its products to determine what kinds of environmental hazards nano-based products might pose when subjected to extreme conditions. In the case of its battery cell for electric vehicles, Maher told that "we puncture them, beat 'em up, do whatever we can … to see how it will act in the environment."

Anything is Better than Nothing

Maher, who noted that her presentation was geared toward small companies, urged nascent nanotech companies to implement EHS controls even if their budgets are tight.

"You can add in a fume hood here or there," Maher said. "If you can't afford to fully enclose your operating system, you can add in automated sections where possible. Anything to reduce the occupational exposure – anything is better than nothing at all."

This is part one of a two-part series in which Maher and Gotcher offer suggestions to small nanotech companies on ways to minimize the EHS risks of working with nanomaterials.

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