Managing Nanotech Hazards with Green Chemistry

Chemist and materials scientist Jim Hutchison, Ph.D., urges those in the nanotechnology industry to adopt a proactive approach involving collaboration and green chemistry to explore the health and environmental implications of nanotechnology.

Hutchison, a professor of organic, organometallic and materials chemistry at the University of Oregon, explained in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano that nanotechnology developments prompt safety and environmental concerns. The current dearth of comprehensive data, however, can prohibit well-informed decisions involving risk and safety.

“Without relevant data, innovators are forced to rely on ‘reasonable worst-case scenarios’ in applying risk-management frameworks or may not discover product hazards until late in product development,” Hutchison wrote. “The lack of information on material safety hinders innovation and places companies at considerable risk of failure.”

He added that absent and conflicting data, such as research articles and media reports that contribute to the uncertainty of carbon nanotube hazards, can “reduce public confidence in product safety and invigorate activist groups that aim to prevent the use of nanomaterials in products of commerce.”

Instead of remaining isolated in their labs, researchers need to work collaboratively to address design, synthesis, characterization and biological and environmental impacts, Hutchison said. He argued that that life, environmental and nonmaterial scientists must work together “to define standard approaches and share expertise to accelerate the collection of definitive data on nanomaterial hazards.”

A Green Solution

Hutchison suggested green chemistry may be an answer to nanotech hazard concerns. According to EPA, green or sustainable chemistry uses environmentally friendly processes and chemicals. Green chemistry results in reduced waste, safer products and reduced use of energy and resources.

In his article, Hutchison explained that green chemistry can reduce byproducts and simplify purification. For example, he cited that when using conventional chemistry, a particular material can be purified in 3 days to result in 15 liters of solvent per gram of nanoparticle. Green chemistry, however, can accomplish the same thing in 15 minutes.

Hutchison said the principles of green chemistry can guide the design, production and use of nanomaterials. This approach, he explained, initially should focus on determining the hazards of a narrow subset of nanomaterials that are closest to commercialization.

He also stressed that green chemistry should be implemented in nanotechnology before the industry exists its “discovery” phase, when only small quantities of nanomaterials are being produced. Once the industry enters the production phase, large quantities of nanomaterials will be created. Hutchison pointed out that this large-scale production potentially could cause health and environmental problems.

“The time to implement green chemistry into nanotechnology is now,” he said.

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