Invisibility Cloaks In Our Future?

David Azoulay_COPs_headshot
By David Azoulay, Director of Environmental Health Program

Nanomaterials are very, very small. When a molecule changes size, its properties – chemical, physical, toxic, etc. – also change. The expanding field of nanotechnology holds enormous potential for advancing technology in exciting ways, but the funding for innovation currently outpaces research into possible negative impacts by more than 3,000%. CIEL works actively to ensure that risks and social implications of this new technology are adequately considered during development.

Here are two basic examples of how properties change as two elements change size:

Gold. As we know it, gold is yellowish, a very poor conductor of heat and electricity, and completely inert. When added to a chemical reaction, gold does not interact; you end up with the product of the chemical reaction and pure gold.

If you manufacture gold at the scale of 30 nanometers (nm) – for an idea of scale: human hair is about 80,000 nm wide, a red blood cell is about 2,000 nm wide, and a DNA strand is about 2nm, so 30 nanometers is indeed very, very small – it becomes red and mildly reactive.

At a scale of 3 nanometers, gold becomes green, an excellent conductor of both heat and electricity, and super reactive. It is a completely different substance.

Carbon. We recognize carbon on the tip of a pencil or as charcoal. When manufactured in a tube of just a few nanometers in width (aka Carbon nano tubes or CNTs), carbon is up to 15 times stronger than steel while being ten times lighter than steel, with amazing electromagnetic, and optic properties. Carbon nanotubes are in our iphones and computers, golf clubs and bicycle frames. Carbon nanotubes have all sorts of great and exciting properties: They are believed to be our best bet at developing invisibility cloaks (Harry Potter-style) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has just announced that they have successfully integrated CNTs into the chloroplast of a plant to increase its photosynthesis capacity. The problem is that some of those same carbon nanotubes, if inhaled, will react like asbestos in your lungs – killing you in atrocious pain in 30 years.

While there are over 1500 products containing nanoparticles on the market today, they mostly consist of anti-odor textiles, transparent sunscreen, whiter doughnut glazing, and other rather mundane applications when compared to the potential risks.

As the uses and applications multiply and extend to all sectors, our direct exposure will dramatically increase together with the risks to our health. Similarly the prevalence of these materials in the environment will also increase dramatically, extending the impacts to all biotopes and ecosystems, and further increasing our own exposure (and thus risks) through the air we breathe, food we eat, and water we drink. That’s why CIEL maintains that while this new technology is indeed exciting, we don’t yet know nearly enough to allow it safely on the market, and we should proceed with precaution.

As part of our continuing commitment to raise awareness of the environmental and social consequences of nano development, especially in regions particularly at risk for exposure, CIEL and IPEN are releasing the third in a series of regional nano guidebooks. Following the success of the Latin America and Africa booklets, the Asia-Pacific booklet will be launched in Kuala Lumpur at the 4th Asia-Pacific regional meeting of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management.

Originally posted on March 27, 2014.