The new Mistra Environmental Nanotechnology programme will fund research on how technology can safely help to bring about a sustainable society. As well as gaining knowledge about the risks, safety and spread of nanomaterials, the initiative will foster new environmental applications.
‘Nanomaterials can, for instance, be used to purify air and water, in sensors that detect various contaminants, and for absorption of carbon dioxide. In fact, our imagination is the only limit to what they can do. With all the new functions they offer, these materials are often superior to those of the present day,’ explains Bengt Kasemo, Professor of Physics at the Division of Chemical Physics, Chalmers University of Technology.
Kasemo has been heading an international expert group commissioned by Mistra. The group’s remit has been to review knowledge in the field with a view to identifying relevant lines of investigation for the call, which will involve Mistra investing SEK 40 million over four years.
Wide knowledge gaps
‘This research focus on risks and safety has emerged rapidly over the past decade. It’s still a young and fragmented field, which means that there are wide gaps in our knowledge. One thing the survey revealed is the lack of basic models and modelling systems for studying the environmental effects of these materials.’
Kasemo emphasises, for example, the need for methods of collecting representative samples of nanomaterials containing all the various substances. Their size and appearance can vary greatly, and they can have widely differing environmental properties. Laboratory models capable of testing environmental properties and correlating them with observations in the environment are also lacking.
This dearth of knowledge poses a dilemma for the agencies responsible. There is a danger that current chemicals legislation may not cover specific material properties at nano level because of our inadequate knowledge foundations. On the other hand, if we wait until these foundations are complete it will take an extremely long time and may both delay the legislation and inhibit development in the area, which offers numerous valuable applications.
Rapidly expanding market
Today, nanomaterials have a wide range of uses in such product categories as electronics, cosmetics, chemical processing technology, drugs and advanced construction materials. In a few years’ time, the global market is expected to be valued at some USD 500 billion — as much as Sweden’s whole GDP.
‘The aim of the call is to create a strong interdisciplinary research environment that will strengthen Sweden’s prominence in the nanotech field, with by providing new knowledge of how environmental aspects can and should be considered in development of new materials and applications,’ says Christopher Folkeson Welch at Mistra.
The plan is for the programme, starting in 2014, to address issues in the social sciences as well. Examples are mechanisms connected with risk assessment and ways of balancing the advantages and disadvantages of nanomaterials in both consumers’ and society’s decision-making processes.