Why is nanotechnology a difficult science


For some, they mean the end of the world - others believe that they will revolutionize our lives. Nanotechnology, also known as the science of tiny particles, harbors numerous opportunities and dangers.


In nanotechnology, material of the smallest size is examined and used: a nanometer corresponds to a millionth of a millimeter. A single human hair is already 80,000 nanometers wide. Nanotechnology is used in the entire spectrum of science, including medicine, physics, mechanical engineering and chemistry, and therefore cannot be assigned to a specific area. Nano-substances are already contained in sun creams to ward off UV radiation, nano-ceramics are used as bone substitutes.

Nanotechnology, dubbed the 'new industrial revolution', has the potential to bring about significant changes in all aspects of society. Their use could be particularly useful in the environment, communication, health and manufacturing sectors. Proponents of this view believe that it could help develop cleaner, safer and more competitive production methods and produce smarter, more durable and more user-friendly products. This can lead to three sustainable solutions: stimulating economic growth, protecting the environment and increasing the safety and quality of life of European citizens.

Caution is advised

At the same time, critics warn of dangers. Terrorists could use weapons based on nanotechnology or the biosphere could be destroyed by robots that got out of control (gray-smear scenario).

While there is no direct evidence of such a hazard, decision makers agree that it is very important to be informed. Then the safety of products in the nanoscale must be discussed in order to gain public support.

Great opportunity for Europe

The European Nanotechnology Strategy was adopted in 2004 to stimulate European R&D in nanotechnology and improve technology transfer. Research results should thus be able to be further developed into commercially usable products. A public consultation on the strategy showed that there was a strong consensus among stakeholders. Nanotechnology will have a significant impact on the European economy and European citizens over the next ten years (see EURACTIV of 12 January 2005).

Key questions:

In June 2005 aAction plan for Europe 2005-2009accepted. This sets out measures "which immediately implement the priority areas of a safe, integrated and responsible N&N strategy." The objectives of the plan are to support the commercial evaluation of research on nanotechnology in the economy, work on common standards and the integration of risk assessment for human health and the environment in all phases of the life cycle of nanotechnology.

"Although the quantitative indicators for the period 2005-2007 cannot be easily collated, the positive effects are still visible", stated the Commission in its first implementation report on the Action Plan for Europe 2005-2009 for nanosciences and nanotechnologies, which is published in the September 2007 was released.

More money for research

Initial observations show that community funding for research into nanotechnology has increased significantly. While 120 million euros were made available in FP4, the amount for financing nanosciences and nanotechnologies (N&N) in FP6 (2002-2006) rose to 1.4 billion euros. Around 3.5 billion euros have been earmarked for N&N under FP7 (2007-2013).

According to Renzo Tomellini, Head of Nanosciences and Nanotechnology in the European Commission's Research Directorate-General, the Commission has de facto become the largest public donor in the world to support the development of nanotechnology. The Commission's contribution represents a third of total public spending on nanotechnology in Europe, he added.

In addition, patent applications resulting from FP6 projects on nanotechnology are said to have more than doubled in the first two years of the framework program.

The report also shows that since 1998 a good 28 million euros have gone to projects that specifically dealt with research into the potential effects of nanotechnologies on health and the environment. Security research is to be "considerably expanded in FP7, both in terms of scope and scope".

Strict control is necessary

According to the Commission, standardization will be “very important” in the field of N&N. It has given the European standardization organizations CEN, CENELEC and ETSI the mandate to develop a standardization program for nanotechnologies. This "should take into account the need to revise existing standards or to develop new standards relating to health, safety and environmental protection" [see report of the European standardization organizations].

In June 2008 the Commission published a communication on regulatory aspects of nanomaterials. It calls for a review of the legislation on the effects of nanomaterials on health, safety and the environment. The review found that current EU legislation "generally covers the potential threats to health, safety and the environment from nanomaterials". “Due to new information”, “the current legislation may need to be adapted”.

An overview of EU legislation:

In EU legislation, the subject of nanotechnology is touched on in the following areas:

  • Chemicals, especially those that are covered by REACH, which lays down specific regulations for the manufacture and authorization for placing the substances on the market;
  • Worker health and safety;
  • Product requirements for the health and safety of workers and consumers as well as for environmental protection:
    • Product Groups: Crop Protection Products, Biocides, New Approach Directives, Cosmetics, Aerosol Containers, Medicines, and Automobiles;
    • Food legislation: general food law, novel foods, materials that come into contact with food, food additives, dietary supplements, feed regulations;
    • Directive on the general product safety of consumables that are not covered by specific regulations and
  • Environment: Directives on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC), Major Accidents (Seveso II Directive), water, waste, air quality, soil protection and environmental liability.

The EU Commission has also adopted a recommendation for a code of conduct for responsible research in the field of nanosciences and nanotechnology. It calls on the member states to observe the precautionary principle in research in nanosciences. This is not only intended to protect researchers, but also other professional groups, consumers, citizens and the environment.

According to the Commission, the future challenges for the N&N are as follows: the availability of interdisciplinary infrastructures of excellence, a critical mass, appropriate conditions for the safe and efficient use of nanotechnology, the understanding of all researchers' responsibility in an ethical framework, low investment by the private sector in research and industrial innovation and a doubling of research projects in each Member State.


The public debate on nanotechnology really started in 2003 when several articles and publications discussed the benefits and risks of the new technology.

In January 2003, the Canadian environmental organization Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) a report on nanotechnologies and their potential impact on society. The report was titled 'The Big Down'. ETC recapitulates the impacts, risks and key players in the field of nanotechnology and makes recommendations to policy makers. The ETC firmly believes in the dangers of the so-called 'gray goo scenario' and warns that the mass production of unique nanomaterials and self-replicating nano-robots would involve incalculable risks in the future. Atomic technology [nanotechnology] could also lead to the development and composition of new elements and the replication of weapons of mass destruction.

In February 2003, theUniversity of Toronto an article with the title 'Mind the gap: science and ethics in nanotechnology' (attention gap: science and ethics in nanotechnology). She wants to point out the lack of research into the ethical, legal and social consequences of nanotechnology. Although science advances, ethics are falling by the wayside, the study warned. There is a risk that nanotechnology will get out of control if the study of its ethical, legal and social consequences cannot keep up with scientific progress.

A report entitled "The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology" dated July 2003Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) in Great Britain is the result of a collaboration between three scientists from Sheffield from the fields of social and natural sciences and provides an evaluation of the various scenarios. In their report, the scientists come to the conclusion that the public in their debate is focusing more on the possible long-term effects of a radical use of nanotechnology, rather than on the more mundane applications that have been possible up to now. Up to now there are no results regarding the practical limits of nanotechnology. According to the report, there is an urgent need to clarify whether the regulatory measures will be sufficient to deal with all the consequences.

The environmental foundation Greenpeace published her report "Future Technologies, Today’s Choices" (The technology of the future will be decided today) in July 2003. This contained information on nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI) and robots. Attempts have been made to place these new technologies in their technical, political and institutional context. Governments and business are called upon to carefully review the related environmental, medical and ethical challenges. In particular, the report calls for an in-depth analysis of the impact on the environment. It also stressed that while environmental benefits were possible in some areas, a number of practices that could release nanoparticles and enter the environment are a matter of concern. According to Greenpeace, these could represent a completely new type of non-biodegradable pollutant.

The British Royal Society and theRoyal Academy of Engineering published a report (commissioned by the UK Government) in November 2003, as part of a study of the pros and cons of nanotechnology and science, entitled Nanotechnology: Views of Scientists and Engineers. The experts believe that nanotechnology could be used for health and environmental benefits. Nevertheless, a central point of the report is the question of the health and environmental hazards that can be caused by nanotubes and other nanoparticles. The scientists therefore call for further studies to be carried out to assess these hazards. In addition, the researchers come to the conclusion in the report that the science fiction scenario of self-replicating 'nanorobots' that turn the world into 'gray goo' is probably physically impossible.

For more views on nanotechnology, see the LinksDossier on Nanotechnology and Consumer Confidence on EURACTIV.com.


  • September 2007: First implementation report on the 2005 to 2009 action plan for nanotechnologies.
  • February 7, 2008: The Commission adopts a recommendation for a code of conduct for responsible R&D in nanotechnologies.
  • June 17, 2008: The Commission publishes a communication on regulatory aspects of nanomaterials. (See Review of EU legislation related to health, safety and environmental aspects related to nanometerials).
  • September 25, 2008: The International Organization for Standardization publishes its first two standards for nanotechnology. This includes definitions (English) and health and safety measures (English).
  • October 2nd and 3rd, 2008: Nanotechnology "Safety for Success" conference of the EU.
  • October 14, 2008: The European Food Safety Authority publishes its draft scientific opinion on the possible risks of the use of nanotechnology in the food sector.
  • October 21-23, 2008: Nano Risk Conference (conference on the risks of nanotechnologies).
  • 2008: The Commission and the EU authorities are starting to review current documents that support the implementation of the various directives for their appropriateness and applicability to nanomaterials.
  • April 2008: The CEN (European Committee for Standardization), the CENELEC (European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization) and the ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) present a standardization program for nanotechnologies (see mandate).
  • 2009: Second mid-term review of the EU action plan 2005 to 2009 for nanotechnologies.
  • 2011: The Commission will present a progress report on the implementation of existing regulations for nanomaterials.



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Small Times

Nanotechnology Now