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Life Sciences | Nanotechnology

A growing influence

Del Stark, CEO of the European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance, takes a look at an exciting area of technology and its implications for the UK as a whole

Nanotechnology can be described as manipulating the attributes of matter at the nanoscale to create products with new functionalities at the macroscale. It can be defined in its simplest terms as ?engineering at a very small scale?. A nanometre is a billionth of a metre (10-9m), which is about 1/80,000 of the diameter of a human hair or the length of 10 hydrogen atoms.

Nanotechnology is a particularly exciting area of technology as it encompasses a whole range of activities from the creation of tiny structures with nanoscale features, to the manipulation of single atoms and molecules in order to produce novel materials and devices in new ways, and with entirely new properties. Few industries will not be affected by the influence of nanotechnology. It is about new ways of making things. It promises more for less: smaller, cheaper, lighter and faster devices with greater functionality, using less raw material and consuming less energy. Faster computers, biocompatible materials, surface coatings, catalysts, sensors and telecommunications are just some examples of where nanotechnology has been embraced.

New technologies are essential to economic success and may provide the solution to many medical, social and environmental problems. Early evaluation of nano-innovations and their future market potential is vital in order for industry to play an active role in shaping future markets. Nanotechnology is expected to revitalise the traditional industries, creating new revenues and new markets. Nanotechnology requires integration of a variety of disciplines such as: chemistry, physics, mechanics, materials, electronic and measurement technologies. In terms of applications, the near-term impact is expected to be in traditional industries. In the long run, the major impact will come from the forefront nanotechnologies, which will enable orders of magnitude breakthroughs in the performance of products.

The beginning

The UK had an early interest in nanotechnology, with a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) National Nanotechnology Initiative (NION) announced in 1986, followed in 1988 by a fouryear LINK Nanotechnology programme. The final tranche of funding for LINK projects was handed out in 1996. After this time there was no national strategy for nanotechnology in the UK, although dispersed research involving nanoscale science continued to be funded. Then, in January 2000, the Clinton administration announced $500mn funding in support of a US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

The importance of the announcement gave funding approval at the highest levels and it was to be allocated to multidisciplinary projects and ?offthe- wall? projects with a percentage of the funds to be spent on outreach, that is, public awareness actions. Almost overnight, nanotechnology gained ?street cred? as a technology with potential for commercial development and most governments now have a nanotechnology strategy and funding scheme in place. Several grand challenges were adopted, including nanotechnology for advanced healthcare, therapeutics and diagnostics.

In 2004, the European Commission unveiled its action plan for nanotechnology, stating that European excellence in nanosciences must finally be translated into commercially viable products and processes. This plan also called for a favourable environment for innovation to be created, in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). a vision document on NanoMedicine written by 45 industrial companies and other stakeholders was presented to the public on 6 September 2005 at EuroNanoforum 2005, a large conference focusing on NanoMedicine. The CEOs of Philips Medical Systems (Dr Karvinen) and of Siemens Medical Solutions (Prof Reinhardt) have together taken over the chairmanship of this platform.

The potential for nanotechnology in manufacturing is enormous and many scientists are looking to nature for clues and ideas for novel engineering systems

The UK has now become one of the European leaders in nanotechnology investment. By 2002, the former Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) was dedicating approximately £30m to nanoscale research, on top of existing funding for subjectspecific research councils. This figure, however, is dwarfed by the new UK Micro Nanotechnology (MNT) initiative.

In early 2005, the DTI allocated £15m funding for 25 projects, ranging from anti-corrosion coatings and electronics to water purification and printing. This investment provided up to a maximum of 50% of each project?s total value. A further £3m was given to INEX, a microsystems and nanotechnology facility for industry based in Newcastle. These grants were the first to be allocated from the government?s £90m MNT initiative in support of both nanotechnology-applied research programmes, and for the creation of new nanotechnology facilities across the country. Further grants are available over the next five years to complete the initiative.


On 29 July 2004, the Royal Society with the Royal Academy of Engineering published a report called Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties. The report illustrates the fact that nanotechnologies offer many benefits both now and in the future, but that public debate is needed about their development. This report offered many recommendations in the areas of industrial application, environmental impact, public dialogue, and the responsible development of nanotechnologies. The UK government responded on 25 February 2005 and recognises the importance of ensuring nanotechnologies are appropriately regulated. However, no new funding for the essential research required to underpin this regulation has been announced.

The government has made an important commitment to a public dialogue on nanotechnologies, which will inform both the direction of research and development and progress on regulation. The academies have suggested that this programme of dialogue be developed in consultation with relevant stakeholders, including industry and nongovernmental organisations.

Nanotechnology will offer many new advances if we don?t stifle innovation and growth

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) recently launched a consultation on a Voluntary Reporting Scheme for Engineered Nanoscale Materials. The scheme is designed to enable DEFRA to build evidence in a way that will allow an informed decision about the nature of appropriate controls. It will be reviewed every six months and run for an initial period of two years.

Also, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution will conduct a study on the environmental effects of novel materials focusing on:


UK plc is involved in the commercialisation and/ or R&D of nanotechnology in areas such as:

Companies such as PsiMedica, which is developing nanoporous silicon for drug delivery, Thomas Swan, which is manufacturing single-walled nanotubes and QinetiQ Nanomaterials, which is taking a look at how to combat bird flu with nanoparticles, are making the UK proud and they are all well on their way to making new innovative products.

Also supporting industry is the UK Micro and Nanotechnology Network, which was established by the DTI and the 12 Regional Development Agencies and Devolved Administrations to provide a market-orientated focus for the facilities, people and organisations engaged in Micro and Nanotechnologies in the UK. The network is helping to lower entry barriers and drive the widespread market development and exploitation of these technologies, building a prosperous, world-class MNT sector in the UK.

The DTI has also set up business support platforms called Knowledge Transfer Networks, which have been devised to help UK business prosper and grow.

Nanotechnology uses

Nanotechnology offers an array of business opportunities to companies in the form of new or refined products for the consumer. This includes new types of drug delivery systems, new bodyfriendly medical implants, stronger and lighter materials, new systems for fuel-saving cars and better ways of preventing fraud and crime.

The potential for nanotechnology in manufacturing is enormous and many scientists are looking to nature for clues and ideas for novel engineering systems. For instance, complex biological entities such as peptides and lipid membranes can spontaneously ?self assemble? and this may hold the key for the next generation of microchips and super computers in which components are chemically grown in a fast and inexpensive manner.

Nanotechnology research may also hold the answer to many of the problems facing the developing world, such as:

Safe and responsible nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is expected to revitalise the traditional industries, creating new revenues and new markets and few companies will not be affected by the influence of nanotechnology. We have all heard the promises that nanotechnology will offer many new advances in healthcare plus provide new forms of energy, while at the same time supply clean drinking water and assist in the prevention of crime. That?s a lot to deliver, but it?s all within reach. That is of course if we don?t stifle innovation and growth.

Governments across Europe are making commitments to public dialogue on nanotechnologies, which will inform both the direction of research and development and progress on regulation. Although nanotechnologies have been under development for many years, it is only relatively recently that the issues behind the science have risen up the political and news agenda, obviously in differing degrees across member states.

The European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance (ENTA) has been established to offer an integrated programme aimed at promoting the benefits of nanotechnology and mitigating regulatory and reputational risk for the whole industry, and supporting all actions that ensure new nanotechnologies are developed in a safe and responsible manner. We must be responsible custodians of this exciting branch of science and ensure a fair framework, which enables the EU to compete effectively on the world stage. Policy makers must recognise the benefits of nanotechnology and that unnecessary regulation could stifle growth and innovation, and journalists must understand that the nanotech industry is committed to safety.

The Royal Society has recently called for industry to be more open about product-testing methods in response to a nanotechnology product inventory recently published in the US. However, there are already strict regulations, which include approved and standard tests such as skin irritation, tissue culture, phototoxicity and assays, to check that products are safe and suitable for the public to use and ENTA members follow these.

Industry is already working closely with DEFRA, sharing not only analytical data, but information on manufacturing processes, environmental fate and toxicology. ENTA members are fully committed to co-operation so as to help DEFRA shape any future evidence-based policy decisions. ENTA members such as PsiMedica, Thomas Swan and QinetiQ Nanomaterials are making new innovative products and devices which have the potential to greatly benefit society. They are all taking considerable care to ensure that their activities are managed and monitored in a responsible way.

For more information, contact:
European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance
Tel: +44 (0) 141 330 2143