Benign-by-design approach to nano-innovation
EU-funded researchers have developed a fresh 'benign-by-design' approach to balancing the commercial and societal benefits of nanomaterial innovations and their environmental impacts, which are notoriously difficult to pinpoint.
© Olivier Le Moal #122507515 2019, source:stock.adobe.com
Nanotechnology is a rapidly evolving field with the potential to revolutionise modern life. But concern that some materials in their nano-form have harmful biological or environmental effects, which are not fully understood, has held back innovation and commercial applications in the field.
The EU-funded ECOFRIENDLYNANO project tackled this by reformulating the safety-by-design approach, which underpins technological development, into a benign-by-design framework. It covers the scientific, regulatory and commercial concerns throughout the nanomaterials life cycle, from design stage and safe handling through to end-of-life, focusing for the first time on repurposing, recycling and safe disposal.
The projects work on nanomaterial toxicity levels in Daphnia magna a type of water flea and detailed study of how the aquatic animals feeding behaviour affects nano-particle activity and movement have prompted revisions to the European Chemicals Agencys REACH guidelines for nanomaterials.
REACH is the main EU regulation covering the production and use of chemical substances, and their potential impacts on both human health and the environment. Specific adjustments to REACH for nanomaterials come into effect from 1 January 2020, and work is currently under way to revise test guidelines for use with nanomaterials.
ECOFRIENDLYNANO was a bit different to typical nano-safety research because I was able to apply some strategies and tools picked up from a recently completed MBA, so it benefited from a more holistic viewpoint, reveals Iseult Lynch who led the Marie Skłodowska-Curie project after moving from Dublin, Ireland to the University of Birmingham in the UK.
Timely work for the circular economy
Unlike conventional chemicals, nanomaterials are highly affected by their surroundings. The initial synthetic identity can transform chemically at the molecular level as it takes on a new environmental identity, she explains. It all depends on the context in which nanomaterials are used, so we need to factor in things like how they behave, their impact and ultimately how they are dealt with at the end of their life.
This timely work has both influenced and been influenced by wider circular economy momentum governing changes in how resources are valued throughout the course of their life. The initial ideas and results teased out in the research have since coalesced into larger-scale activities and fed several other ongoing projects at the University of Birmingham, which is establishing itself as a centre of excellence and leadership in nanomaterial innovation, safety and increasingly environmental implications, confirms Lynch.
Projects such as the EU-backed NanoCommons project, which is making data more FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable), are leading to new long-term strategies and simple design rules for safer nanomaterials developed on benign life-cycle principles. This includes, for example, planning for recovery of critical resources such as rare-earth elements from the design stage.
Thanks to the importance of the subject and strength of the projects findings, Lynchs H-Index has tipped the 50 mark. This Index was first developed by Jorge Hirsch in 2005 and has become the standard for recognising scientific performance based on publications and citations in high-impact journals. She is also one of Clarivate Analytics top 1 % cited cross-field researchers.
On top of peer recognition, book contributions and support for PhD research, the timing and importance of ECOFRIENDLYNANO has fast-tracked the researchers career from a lecturer at the beginning of the project to full professor at its completion, 48 months later. It also prompted the creation of the UK Nano-Environment Academics and Regulators Group, now supported by UK Natural Environment Research Council funding.
Apart from providing traction for Lynchs career, the EU funding paid for some useful new equipment and gave her the freedom to explore more speculative out-of-the-box subjects and to meet more people in cross-over disciplines, she notes. The scope of the work is also being followed closely by industry and EU policymakers, as they explore the effect of regulation and the commercialisation process linked to novel nanomaterial applications, especially as they concern human health, the environment and fragile ecosystems.