Writing in a paper published in the 16 November issue of Nature, 14 top international scientists identified 'Five Grand Challenges' for research on nanotechnology risk that must be met if the technology is to reach its full promise.
"The spectre of possible harm threatens to slow the development of nanotechnology unless sound, independent and authoritative information is developed on the risks and how to avoid them," said Andrew Maynard, the paper's lead author and chief science advisor with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
"We are running out of time to 'get it right'. Last year, more than US$32bn in products containing nanomaterials were sold globally. By 2014, Lux Research estimates that US$2.6 trillion in manufactured goods will incorporate nanotechnology.
"If the public loses confidence in the commitment of governments, business and the science community to conduct sound and systematic research into possible risks, the enormous potential of nanotechnology will be squandered."
Recent studies examining the toxicity of engineered nanomaterials in cell cultures and animals have shown that size, surface area, surface chemistry, solubility and possibly shape all play a role in determining the potential for nanomaterials to cause harm.
The paper, Safe Handling of Nanotechnology, outlines Five Grand Challenges to "stimulate research that is imaginative, innovative, timely and above all relevant to the safety of nanotechnology".
They include the development of:
- Instruments to assess environmental exposure to nanomaterials
- Methods to evaluate the toxicity of nanomaterials
- Models for predicting the potential impact of new engineered nanomaterials
- Ways of evaluating the impact of nanomaterials across their life cycle
- Strategic programmes to enable risk-focused research
"It is generally accepted that, in principle, some nanomaterials may have the potential to cause harm to people and the environment," the research paper continued.
"Yet research into understanding, managing and preventing risk often has a low priority in the competitive worlds of intellectual property, research funding and technology development."
More information about the paper and its authors is available online at Nanotechproject.org.