On December 3rd 2018, the EU Commission took the prudent step to ensure that nanotechnology is developed in a safer manner. They did this by passing a law requiring that nanomaterials be included on the REACH chemical registry. But when the legislation comes into force in 2020 not only will the nanomaterial market have lower risk products, but raw materials such as carbon nanotubes will have become mainstream industrial feedstocks.

By listing nano-raw materials alongside more traditional chemical products, such as sodium hydroxide or sulphuric acid, strategic planners in Brussels are acknowledging the key role that nanomaterials will play in industry.

As the European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials notes, “The new requirements will enable both companies and authorities to systematically assess the hazardous properties of nanomaterials, how they are used safely, and what risks they may pose to our health and the environment. This information will help authorities in the EU to identify if further risk management measures are needed.”

REACH (the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) is a lengthy EU regulation addressing the production and supply of chemical substances. The legislation itself is 849 pages long and took seven years to pass into law. It has been described as both the most complex and important legislation in EU history.

This legislation builds on the EU's 2011 adoption of a definition for nanomaterials. This was given as, “A natural, incidental or manufactured material containing particles, in an unbound state or as an aggregate or as an agglomerate and where 50 % or more of the particles have one or more dimensions in the size range of 1 nm - 100 nm [1nm = 0.000001mm].”

However, this classification left the concept of nanotechnology very much in the laboratory. With nanomaterials being placed inside the REACH safety framework this burgeoning, new industry can truly progress.

Naturally, research into the safety of nanomaterials must continue, particularly as their size makes them easily absorbed into the body via the skin or lungs. As researchers from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Mexico City made clear in their 2018 study published in the journal Agricultural Nanobiotechnology, “Nanoparticle toxicity has to be assessed, and the standardization of techniques should be set by scientists and decision makers worldwide. Cutting-edge knowledge regarding the interactions between nanoparticles and human health has to move forward, but environmental quality and social welfare must also be ensured.”

But overall, in adding nanomaterials to the REACH program, the EU has taken a bold and necessary step in legislating for nanomaterial safety. It is also removing some of the public fear over this new technology.

Humans as a species, have a natural dislike for the unknown, which often equates into a ‘I don’t understand it, it must be dangerous.’

This is despite the fact that nanomaterials have been used in many everyday products for some time. Most sun creams contain nanoparticles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, while high-end sports equipment often takes advantage of nanomaterials for their improved strength to weight properties.

More examples of how nanomaterials are already in use around us can be seen via this virtual tour on the website ChemicalsInOurLife.

In fact, the founding of a legislative framework for nanomaterials has arrived only just in time. As Dr Muhammad Adeel Irfan, a funding specialist at the EU investment and innovation consultancy GAEU Horizon 2020 Centre of Excellence, notes

His analysis of nanomaterial markets lays out how nanomaterials are already a ‘go-to’ industrial feedstock and how demand and production will continue to grow. In particular he notes that, “The European Commission estimates the sector to be worth in excess of USD 1 trillion” Adding that, “Between 2007 and 2011, the EU alone invested approximately EUR 896 million in nanotechnology related research. The worldwide investment in nanotechnology is estimated to be close to a quarter of a trillion USD, with both China and the USA investing upwards of USD 2 billion.”

While the scale of investment is astounding, the diverse nature of nanotechnology and its wide variety of applications, means that even medium sized business and smaller start-ups are getting nanomaterial products developed, manufactured and sold.

The business of nanomaterials is happening, it’s here to stay, and it’s ready for investment.

As Dr Irfan states, “Nanotechnology is not just the future, it’s already here.”

Photo credit: Slideshare, ChemicalsInOurLife, RoyalFlags, & Wikimedia