Have you ever gone to the store to buy a new hair drier and noticed all their new fancy descriptions? Now you don’t just buy a hairdryer, you buy a “Nano Titanium Hair Drier“, or a “Nano Weight Pro 1900 Turbo Dryer“, or even a “Nano Silver Tourmaline Ceramic Hair Dryer“. Yes, the word “Nano” is creeping everywhere! Beyond hair dryers, there are many wonderful new applications that allow us to do so much more using less materials and less energy, all because of our knowledge of nanotechnology. We are starting to be able to put carbon nanotubes in plastics to make them stronger. We can use silver nanoparticles instead of antibiotics to kill bacteria and viruses. We can make circuits so small, so very small, that we can now put an entire computer in the palm of our hands. It was only 40 years ago when a computer with far less capabilities took the space of an entire room.
To document how nanotechnology is entering the marketplace, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Wilson Center developed the Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory (CPI, for short). This inventory was developed in 2005 and gathered a lot of attention from academia because it became an easy to cite, reputable testament of why we should be studying the potential environmental and health implications of nanotechnology.
This inventory served its purpose very well, but it also attracted some criticism because it simply listed products that advertised to contain nanotechnology in some way, without ever verifying whether or not that claim was true. The CPI also stopped being updated in 2010, when funding for this project ceased.
Although the CPI was not being maintained, it continued being used and cited in the scientific literature, which shows just how useful it was. And that is when Virginia Tech got involved. A few professors at the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (VTSuN), lead by Matt Hull (project manager at ICTAS), Mike Hochella (professor in Geosciences), and Sean McGinnis (assistant professor in Materials Science and Engineering) talked to the folks at the Wilson Center to revamp the CPI. The Virginia Tech folks were able to secure some funding and this is where I came along. I took on the project, with a lot of input and help from Virginia Tech faculty and Wilson Center collaborators (especially Todd Kuiken), to reinvent this inventory and bring the old entries up to date.
This was a very large effort, because we didn’t just bring the old inventory entries up to date, fixing broken links and archiving products no longer available, but we also created new descriptors for each product. Now, you can easily find information about what kind of nanomaterial is present in each product, where those nanomaterials are located within products, learn about potential human exposure pathways, and see many other descriptors. We also describe, whenever possible, the reasons why nanotechnology was added to each product, in a metric we call “Nanomaterial functions”. And we have also come up with a way to describe how much information the manufacturer has released about their products. This metric is called “How much we know”. Products that are very well described in terms of their nanomaterial composition, for example, fall under “Category 1 (Extensively verified claim)” and, on the other hand, products that just advertise the use of nano, but give no further information to support that claim, fall under Category 4 (Unsupported claim).
We also added crowdsourcing capabilities to the inventory, which means that the nanotechnology research and industry communities can register for accounts to be able to contribute to the website. Those contributors can suggest new products to be added to the inventory and can suggest corrections or changes to existing entries. We focused more on setting up the framework for this inventory. Now we need help from researchers, students, and manufacturers everywhere to keep it updated and as rich in information as possible. If you would like to help, log in, register for an account, and then browse around. If you see an entry that can be further completed, click on “Suggest edits” and a form will appear giving you options for completing the information related to the product. A similar form can also be used to suggest new products to be added into the inventory.
The CPI is now a robust tool for nanotechnology manufacturers, researchers, consumers, and the regulatory community. Anyone can access the website and browse through the entries using many new descriptors for the products themselves and the nanomaterials they contain. We hope this inventory will support the growth of research in nanomaterials life cycle assessment (LCA) and other emerging research topics.
We are aware of one more large database of products that contain nanomaterials or are marketed with the word ‘nano’. The Nanodatabase was developed by the Danish Consumer Council and focuses mainly in products that are sold in the European market. We are collaborating with them to make sure that both inventories help their visitors in the best way possible.
There was a very large amount of people at Virginia Tech and at the Wilson Center helping update the CPI and I would like to thank some of them for their substantial support and acknowledge them here:
VTSuN student assistants:
– Jingtao Wang, Computer Science and Math double major at Virginia Tech.
– Eric Bruning, undergraduate student in Mechanical Engineering with minors in Industrial Design and Mathematics at Virginia Tech.
– Danny Yang, undergraduate student in Biochemistry, part of the Scieneering program at Virginia Tech.
– Previous VTSuN student assistants: Yiwen, Esther, and Pachu.
Eric Vejerano, postdoctoral associate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech.
Students of Dr. Sean McGinnis’ class Environmental Life Cycle Analysis in Spring 2013.
Dr. Lissett Bickford’s Scieneering students for Summer 2013: Erin Koperna and Krystal Le.
VTSuN IGEP and ICTAS ENT graduate students: Xinzhe, Carol, Becky, Virginia, Gargi, Marjorie.
Justin Rousso, research assistant at the Wilson Center.
About the Author: Nina Quadros is the Associate Director for VTSuN: Virginia Tech’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology and a postdoctoral associate of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) at Virginia Tech.
On twitter: @marinavance
Update [2 Sep 2014] Nina Quadros has recently changed her name to Marina Vance
Update [23 Oct 2015] Check out this new publication about the nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory: