Nanotechnology - FAQs

What is nanotechnology?

Nanosciences and nanotechnologies are approaches to research, development and manufacturing that aim to control the structure and behaviour of matter at the level of atoms and molecules.  Nanosciences offer the opportunity of extending our understanding of what is happening at the atomic level.  Nanotechnologies encourage the development of materials and devices with fresh properties, functions and performance.

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What is the relationship between nanoelectronics and nanotechnology?

Nanoelectronics is the branch of electronics dealing with miniaturised electronic circuits integrated on semiconductor 'chips', the basic element being the conductor.  Until recently, transistor dimensions were in the micrometer range (mircoelectronics), but today they are manufactured at 90 or 65 nanometre.

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Why are nanotechnologies important for the economy, industry and job creation?

Nanotechnologies are enabling technologies with far-reaching effects.  They are expected to provide a new competitive edge to European industry and to the European economy as a whole, and contribute to job creation.  Market analysts anticipate a world market for nanotechnologies worth EUR 750 – 2000 billion by 2015 and estimate that 10 million nano- related jobs will be created by 2014, approximately 10% of all manufacturing jobs world- wide.

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How big is the nanotechnology field in the UK?

In the UK, there are over 600 micro and nanotechnology companies (Source: NanoKTN, 2010) including university spinouts and international investors, each developing commercial applications from nanotechnologies.

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What industries are or will be involved with nanotechnologies?

It is anticipated that the impact of nanotechnologies will be seen through faster computers, controlled drug delivery, nerve and tissue repair techniques, surface coatings, catalysts, telecommunications, sensors (for example, real- time recording of neurological activity) and devices for research, diagnostics and therapy.

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What are the expected benefits of nanotechnologies for consumers and society as a whole and the environment?

Nanotechnologies are expected to bring everyday benefits for consumers through new products, innovative health applications and reduced adverse environmental impacts.  Improved materials and surfaces, information and communication technologies, medical diagnostics and household products are already available. 

The environment benefits from a more sustainable use of resources, due to processing and production systems that use energy and raw materials more efficiently.  Substitution of certain environmentally harmful materials (eg lubricants) could also be possible.  Research in energy efficiency, production and storage, lightweight materials and modern insulation construction materials may also contribute to climate change lessening.

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What are the potential risks on nanomaterials to human health and the environment?

Nanomaterials exhibit novel properties and may expose humans and the environment to new risks.  This is why HSE recommend a sensible precautionary approach to managing occupational risks.  See 'Health effects of particles produced for nanotechnologies' for further information.

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How are nanotechnologies regulated in the UK and EU?

Although there are no provisions in EU legislation that refer explicitly to nanomaterials, existing legislation covers in principle the potential health and safety and environmental risks.

In the UK, health and safety risks are covered by COSHH, DSEAR and REACH which are regulated by HSE.

The environmental risks are regulated by the Environment Agency in the UK.

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My company use nanomaterials.  What should I do if I suspect a relationship between ill health and the use of these nanomaterials?

Raise this with your employer and confirm that a suitable risk assessment has been done.  If you are unhappy with your employer's response, raise this with your local HSE office.

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What is a risk assessment?

A risk assessment is a careful examination of what could cause harm to people in the workplace. Doing a risk assessment will help employers identify the significant risks in their workplace, and avoid wasted effort by effectively targeting these. A good risk assessment will help avoid accidents and ill health, which can not only ruin lives, but can also increase costs to business through lost output, compensation claims and higher insurance premiums. For more about risk assessment see our Risk Management website.

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How do I carry out a risk assessment specific to nanotechnologies and where can I obtain more information on risk assessments?

HSE's website contains pages dedicated to Risk Assessment, including a section on how to assess risks in the workplace and some example risk assessments.

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What is HSE doing about nanotechnologies?

HSE continues to closely monitor the situation and work with partners, other Government departments, industry and universities.

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What has HSE done to ensure the safety of workers manufacturing nanomaterials?

HSE guidance on safe working with nanotechnologies is available.  This guidance supports the current regulatory regime covering the safe use and handling of any potentially hazardous substances and materials.

It is the legal duty of those who create risk through their work activities to understand those risks and ensure they are as low as reasonably practicable.  This includes ensuring that they identify and obtain relevant information on the hazardous properties of substances or materials they use or manufacture.

Although currently all the information on the potential hazards of nanoparticles and nanomaterials is not known, the principles of risk assessment are well established and still apply.

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