21-01-2015 | | By Paul Whytock
Do nanotubes represent an asbestos-like risk to people working with them? This is not an easy question to answer despite it having been asked for a number of years and extracting a definitive conclusion from the plethora of research on the subject does in itself require copious research.
The scramble by industries to embrace the advances of nanotechnology is perfectly understandable and not least amongst these is the electronics sector where nanotube technology is rightly perceived as one of the next great major steps forwards in transistor technology But in the enthusiastic rush to capitalise on this technology industry has by and large adopted a Nelsonesque approach and turned a blind eye to the possibility that certain nanotube technology may constitute a similar and serious health risk to those generated by asbestos fibres.
Fortunately some clear facts are starting to emerge but two fundamental questions remain unanswered. Can nanotube technology cause the killer lung disease mesothelioma to the same extent as asbestos and are some nanotube structures more pernicious than others?
It is imperative that these questions are fully answered from not only the moral standpoint of protecting humans working with nanotubes but also to prevent the enormous financial wave of health care costs and compensation claims that followed the onset of mesothelioma cases caused by asbestos. In the USA alone the cost of asbestos related cases is expected to exceed $200 billion.
So what do we really know so far? Well nanotube research conducted at the University of Edinburgh examined and compared the health risks from long and short carbon nanotubes with those of long and short asbestos fibres. Material was injected into the abdominal cavity of mice and within that area of tissue the results showed that long, thin nanotubes caused the same effects as asbestos fibre.
Interestingly the shape of the nanotube may play a crucial part in just how dangerous it can be. The major concern is that because of the microscopic dimensions of nanotube technology they are easily airborne and workers could be at risk of inhaling or ingesting nanotubes just like asbestos fibres. Once embedded in the lungs it’s doubtful that the bodies macrophages would be able to remove tissue damaged by them, especially when the invading nanotube had travelled beyond the lung surfactant. However, not all nanotubes behave the same. Those of a shorter length and those that are twisted may not behave like asbestos so it is at least becoming clearer what type of nanotubes require greater diligence when it comes to industrial safety procedures.
The desire by the electronics industry to fully exploit nanotubes both technically and financially is well appreciated. Sometime ago Dutch scientists created a nanotube activated transistor that could switch on and off using a single electron. The point here is that conventional transistor design needs the movement of millions of electrons to operate and this creates in heat dissipation challenges. Such a single electron activated transistor could also result in designs that are substantially smaller.
However, the rush to implement widespread use of nanotube technology must be tempered with great employee care otherwise companies could find that the significant contribution it makes to their corporate bank accounts will soon evaporate in a cloud of compensation claims akin to those created by the asbestosis debacle.