Nanoscience and nanotechnology are developing so fast that they are now among the top fields in research and innovation across Europe, the US, and Asia, and are thus playing an increasingly important role in the global economy. Currently estimated at €100 billion, analysts forecast that the international nanotechnology market will reach €1.7 trillion by 2014 and make up an astonishing 15% of the world's manufacturing output. We are far indeed from nanotechnology's first faltering steps, and US physicist Richard Feynman's provocative 1959 lecture in which he stated that the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica could fit on the head of a pin. “There is plenty of room at the bottom,” he prophetically remarked.
No longer confined to the laboratory, nanotechnology is now very much a part of everyday life, with the ubiquitous presence of nanoelectronics in the computing field, the encapsulation of drugs in nanoparticles, or microdevices for medical analysis and diagnosis. Then, there are nanostructured titanium nitride coatings to extend the lifespan of cutting tools, nanofiltration of ground water and wastewater, silver nanocrystals as an antimicrobial barrier in band-aids, inorganic nanoparticles incorporated into paints as additives to increase their resistance to abrasion, inorganic nanoparticles used as UV absorber in sunscreen, nanocatalysts, nanocomposite packaging materials, and so on.
“In the race towards ever-increasing miniaturization, electronics was without a doubt at the cutting-edge five years ago,” says Jean-Michel Lourtioz, director of the Institute for Fundamental Electronics (IEF).2
“But today, research that blends micro- and nanotechnology with biology and medicine also blossoms at the forefront, and is making significant progress.” Enter the Nanoworld
To begin with, it is worth defining some terms. Nanoscience “aims to explore the novel physical, chemical, and mechanical properties that matter takes on at scales of a billionth of a meter, while nanotechnology tries to make use of such properties in all sorts of marketable end-products,” explains Claude Weisbuch, of the PMC laboratory.3
There are two ways of making nano-objects: the top-down approach, which consists in gradually shrinking material structures until you finally reach dimensions that are less than 100 nm; or the bottom-up approach, which consists in manipulating matter such as atoms and molecules so that they build nano-objects.
For purists like Christian Joachim, from CEMES,4
the term nanotechnology should be restricted to the latter approach. He believes that the definition has become far too broad, and that in 95% of the cases, the term “nanotechnology” is wrongly used.
In fact, when it comes to building objects atom by atom, or experimenting with a single molecule, there has been tremendous progress over the past five years, which can be attributed to scanning tunneling microscopes (STM) and atomic force microscopes.5
“Very recently, researchers at the IBM Research center in Zurich succeeded in mapping chemical bonds inside a molecule of pentacene,” Joachim enthuses. This is a bit like using X-rays to see inside the human body. Yet the most fascinating progress is in the field of mechanics. “We can make molecule-motors, molecule-gears, molecule-wheelbarrows, etc., with sizes of one to two nanometers. There's even an 'entertaining' international competition on who can make the first molecule-car equipped with four wheels and an engine! Though no one really knows what applications these molecule-machines might have, this is teaching us how to design machines or circuits in a single molecule.” Nanoscience vs Nanotechnology
How well is France doing in this highly aggressive international competition? With some 3500 yearly publications on the subject, France takes an honorable fifth place, behind the US, Japan, China, and Germany. As for research in nanotechnology, France, with less than 2% of worldwide patents, is at a considerable disadvantage.
In this field, “France is in the 'ivory tower' category,” says Alain Costes, from LAAS.6
“In other words, we have problems turning the results of our scientific research into technical innovations that can boost economic growth through filing patents. And without a strong reaction within the French scientific community, faced with extremely successful newcomers such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Israel, and Russia, we will gradually fall even further behind the group of nations that will play a leading international role in the economic development of nanotechnology.”
As a result, last May saw the launch of the Nano-Innov plan. Last year, it was provided with a €70 million budget to be managed by the French National Research Agency (ANR), which is already granted for 2010. The program is set to create three major technological integration centers at Saclay (south of Paris), Toulouse, and Grenoble. “These three complementary clusters will make it possible, for the first time in this key sector, to closely associate scientific research and industrial development,” says Pierre Guillon, director of CNRS' Institute for Engineering and System Sciences (INSIS).7
The aim is not to curb nanoscience research, but rather to “make a number of top-level academic groups aware of the potential applications of their work,” adds Costes. Eventually, each integration center will have shared facilities covering the entire range of nanotechnology, and will thus be in an ideal position to work hand-in-hand with industry.
With around 170 laboratories and 2000 researchers involved, CNRS is a serious contributor to the plan, and has indeed set nanoscience and nanotechnology as a major scientific priority. Ethical Issues
Although nanotechnology opens up many exciting prospects, for some it is already a source of concern. “Nanotechnology carries its share of worries,” admits Robert Plana, of LAAS. “It comes at a time when science and technology are already under fire from all sides. But if the uncertainties and risks associated with nanotechnology must be explored, scientifically naive and exaggerated warnings should be avoided.”
As Weisbuch explains, some people are worried about the invisibility of nano-objects, which implies that exposure could go completely unnoticed. In fact, frequently, nano-objects are not used in nanometer-sized form, but are incorporated into a clearly visible material device like an integrated circuit, for example. The fact that nanotechnology will provide new means to facilitate access and storage of vast amounts of data, including genetic and computer records of individuals, is more worrying. This will no doubt raise new issues with regard to the protection of privacy and freedom.
One key question is whether the large-scale manufacturing of nanostructured materials will lead to the uncontrolled release into the environment of nanoparticles, some of which may be harmful to our health. Among the many public concerns linked to nanotechnology, “this issue has garnered the most media attention,” says Stéphanie Lacour, of CECOJI.8
“Right from the start, a parallel was established between nanotechnology and the precedents set by asbestos and biotechnology—especially GMOs,” which had a profound effect in France. Until a few months ago, “there was no specific legal text applicable to nanotechnology, either in France or in Europe,” Lacour points out. “But things are moving now. In March and April of 2009, the European Parliament approved two resolutions on the presence of nanomaterials in cosmetic products and food. And the French 'Grenelle Law,' whose Article 42 deals with risks related to nanoparticles, was passed on August 3rd, 2009.”
Above all, a new discipline is in rapid expansion: nanotoxicology, whose aim is to describe and quantify the dangers of nanomaterials. “Today there are approximately 2000 articles concerning the ecotoxicity of nanoparticles, as opposed to a mere 50 or so five years ago,” says Éric Gaffet, of the NanoMaterials Research Group.9
“Yet there is an evident shortage, at both a national and international level, of toxicologists and ecotoxicologists working on a subject that is not easy to tackle: a simple gram of TiO2 (titanium dioxide) nanoparticles, for instance, can contain up to ten million billion nanoparticles, which all differ in size, chemical reactivity, or stability over time.” Characterizing the distribution of each parameter (size, shape, persistence in tissue or organisms, etc.) in a sample is very difficult because “every type of nanoparticle has a specific potential toxicity which depends on its lifecycle,” explains Gaffet. “Given current human and technical means, it would take an estimated 50 years to test the toxicity of all the nanoparticles already on the market.”
Then in order not to test all nanoparticles individually, some research groups, like the one led by Jean-Yves Bottero at CEREGE10
have developed a procedure that first categorizes nanoparticles in terms of physico-chemical properties and then tries to compare and somehow classify and generalize the biological effects.
Can we already affirm that nanomaterials constitute a genuine health and environmental threat? There is no evidence that they do—but unfortunately, nor is there evidence that they don't. “Nanomaterials should be considered potentially dangerous, as indicated in the report of the French Agency for Environmental and Occupational Health Safety published in June 2008,”11
adds Gaffet. “Toxicity tests carried out on animal and cell models demonstrate that certain nanomaterials are specifically dangerous, and that they can cross certain biological barriers. However, much more work must be done before reaching a conclusion on that matter.” Moreover, the importance of environmental risks also needs to be evaluated. Seeking protection
Do we know how to protect ourselves from nanoparticles when they are sprayed as aerosols? Current systems such as fiber filters placed in ventilation systems or in the respiratory masks worn by operators are very efficient. The most effective filters manage to trap over 99.99% of 4 nm-sized particles. Particles of 100-500 nm are not as easy to stop, which refutes the widespread idea that the effectiveness of filters depends solely on the size of its pores. But there has been progress: “By using electrically charged fiber filters and playing on electrostatic effects to modify the path of particles and facilitate their capture, we are already able to neutralize between 95% and 99% of large nanoparticles,” says Dominique Thomas, of LSGC.12
Finally, do scientists spend enough time thinking about the ethical and societal impact of their research? Not for philosopher and science historian Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, from CNRS' Ethics Committee (COMETS). “French researchers recognize the need to assess the possible toxicity of nanotechnology,” she says. “But most of them are still reluctant to explore any long-term effect it may have.” Bensaude-Vincent regrets the fact that “save for a few laboratories, there is no place where researchers can talk about their doubts and concerns.” Jacques Bordé, of COMETS, thinks that promoting direct dialog between scientists and the public is another necessity. “This implies training scientists to not simply consider their research from the viewpoint of the scientific challenge, but also in regards to ethical issues. Thinking about ethical issues doesn't prevent creativity, it may even stimulate it.”
1. Commission nationale du débat public.
2. Institut d'électronique fondamentale (CNRS / Université Paris-XI).
3. Laboratoire de Physique de la matière condensée (CNRS/ École polytechnique).
4. Centre d'élaboration des matériaux et d'études structurales (CNRS).
5. The scanning tunneling microscope uses an extremely fine metal needle, which is moved over the surface to be studied at a distance of just a few atoms. This makes it possible to locate and manipulate the atoms on the sample's surface. The atomic force microscope works according to the same principle, but is used to explore non-conducting samples and especially biological material.
6. Laboratoire d'analyse et d'architecture des systèmes (CNRS).
7. Institut des sciences de l'ingénierie et des systèmes.
8. Centre d'études sur la coopération juridique internationale (CNRS / Université de Poitiers).
9. Research group belonging to the Institut de recherche sur les archéomatériaux (CNRS / Université de technologie de Belfort-Montbéliard / Université Bordeaux-III / Université d'Orléans).
10. Centre Européen de Recherche et d'Enseignement des Géosciences de l'Environnement (CNRS / IRD / Université de Provence / Université Paul-Cézanne / Collège de France).
11. The report, entitled “Nanomatériaux et sécurité au travail” (Nanomaterials and Occupational Safety), is available at the Documentation française website. (www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr)
12. Laboratoire des sciences du génie chimique (CNRS).