Nanotechnology: Maturation and the need for standards

David S. Ensor, Senior Fellow and Center Director, Research Triangle Institute

Nanotechnology was born as the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as described by Roco et al.1 The NNI is coordinated across the federal government by a subgroup of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTIC), the Cabinet-level organization by which the President coordinates science and technology policies across the federal government.

Roots of nanotechnology include aerosol and colloidal science, polymers and microfabrication in the semiconductor industry. The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981 made it possible to “image” and eventually manipulate individual atoms.

One of the key concepts is that technology can be approached from either top-down or bottom-up points of view. The top-down approach is the traditional method of fabricating products by starting with a large block and removing unwanted material until the part has the desired function. Conversely, the bottom-up approach is to build things from individual bits of matter to form the desired part.

One concept of intense research is self-assembly where molecules would arrange themselves into useful shapes and devices. This leads to the concept that products could be designed and fabricated at the most basic level. The three elements of nanotechnology as defined by the NNI include:

  • Exploiting the new phenomena and processes at the intermediate-length scale between single atom or molecule and about 100 molecular diameters, the range of about 1 to 100 nanometers
  • Applying the same principles and tools to establish a unifying platform for science and engineering at the nanoscale
  • Using the atomic and molecular interactions to develop efficient manufacturing methods

Nanotechnology is the continuation of a 300-year industrial trend to make products better, smaller and faster. The research has been a source of intense activity and is beginning to show signs of maturing beyond the laboratory.

Nanotechnology, if the extraordinary properties at small scale can be understood and engineered, could lead to a new generation of high-performance products. A wide range of applications are envisioned, including communications, energy conversion and medicine. The global standard of living could be improved. It is believed that nanotechnology would allow creation of global abundance and permit sustainable use of the planet. The NNI has a well designed roadmap anticipating research focus on several generations of products:2

  • First Generation (2001)-passive nanostructures. Examples are nanoparticles for catalysis, coatings and advanced materials.
  • Second Generation (~2005)-active nanostructures. Examples are nanoelectronics, targeted drugs, and sensors.
  • Third Generation (~2010)-3-D nanosystems and systems of nanosystems.
  • Fourth Generation (~2015)-heterogeneous molecular nanosystems. It is envisioned that each molecule in the nanosystem has a specific structure and plays a different role.

By 2015, it is estimated that nanotechnology will have a $1 trillion dollar impact on the global economy and employ 2 million workers, with 1 million being employed in the United States.

Recently a “report card” on the NNI was given by the Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology3. The strategy of NNI through several agencies was to first heavily fund fundamental research and investment in tools to facilitate research mainly in the universities and national laboratories. The intent of this investment was to build the basis for invention and to build infrastructure. The initial funding for the NNI was about $0.5 billion in 2000 and has increased to $1 billion in 2006. Nineteen university centers and three research networks were created by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Department of Defense (DoD) has set up three centers, the National Space Administration (NASA) has set up four centers, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has one center. The National Institute of Health has plans in 2005 to establish up to eighteen centers for medical applications. The Department of Energy has established five user facilities. In 2004, the NNI supported over 2,500 active research projects at more than 500 universities, government laboratories and other research institutions in all fifty states. The NNI has also stimulated state-supported funding and industrial funding. Other countries have established their own research programs. The total governmental investment worldwide in 2004 was estimated at $4.6 billion.

It is evident that all measures of scientific productivity have increased significantly. The numbers of published papers on nanotechnology were about 28,000 in 2004 and the number of patents was about 8,600 in 2003.

Nanotechnology is the continuation of a 300-year industrial trend to make products better, smaller and faster.
Click here to enlarge image

The Presidents Council, however, observed that at the present time the nanotechnology industry per se was quite small if defined very narrowly. On the other hand, if a large number of industries, such as coatings, electronics, cosmetics, textiles and pharmaceuticals, that already use nanotechnology to make existing products better were included, nanotechnology is already quite large and making an important impact on our economy.

Environmental, health and safety issues related to nanotechnology have recently become of interest. The ability to invent new materials has significantly outrun our ability to understand related toxicity and risk factors. Oberdorster et al.4 reviewed highlights of what is known about the toxicology of nanomaterials and describes approaches for screening these materials. Nanoscale materials, when incorporated into products, are often embedded in coatings and polymers, limiting availability to the environment. One concern at this point, however, is workplace safety and nanoparticles are believed to have the greatest potential risk. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has issued a strategic plan for research to fill knowledge gaps with respect to safety of nanomaterials.5

Standards initiatives

There are several standards activities underway worldwide. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has an initiative focusing on carbon nanotube quality and electrical properties to support incorporation into electronic devices.6 ASTM International started committee E56 on nanotechnology in January 2005.7 The committee is in partnership with six other standards organizations and has over 170 members organized into six technical subcommittees. In 2004, the British Standards Institute (BSI) started an effort with a focus on terminology and nomenclature and a draft is available on its Web site.8

A new ISO technical committee 229 has been commissioned for “Nanotechnologies”9 and BSI has been granted the secretariat. The inaugural meeting was scheduled for November 7-9, 2005, in London.10 There are 23 participating and 7 observer countries. IEST is represented on the U.S. Technical Advisory Group and is a member of the U.S. Delegation. The need to support the standards and recommended practices related to specification, construction, facility testing and operation of research and manufacturing facilities has not been considered in the NNI and the current standards initiatives.

IEST Recommended Practices initiative on nanotechnology

As the new technologies emerge from the research stage into manufacturing, facilities will need to be designed and built to accommodate the potentially unique requirements of nanotechnology, which is cutting across a wide range of disciplines and industries. Extrapolating semiconductor technologies with reduced feature size is only one possibility. Many nanotechnology products could require state-of-the-art semiconductor facilities, others may require capability of performing biotechnology functions. Still others may not require any type of cleanroom at all, but may require containment during manufacture if the material is toxic. New processes will need to be invented to scale up beaker- and hood-based research, and factories will need to be specified, designed and constructed for specific products and processes.

The IEST has a long history of developing standards and recommended practices in the cleanroom industry and testing products in controlled environments. The organization is exceptionally well suited to develop requirements for manufacturing and for adaptation of existing test methodologies to new products. Many of the necessary standards and recommended practices are quite likely in place to support nanotechnology and may only require interpretation for particular applications. Gaps will need to be identified and the development of consensus recommended practices started to aid all steps of nanotechnology through research, development and manufacturing.

A Nanotechnology Committee has been organized. Its inaugural meeting was scheduled for November 15, 2005, in Chicago and is slated to meet regularly at future IEST meetings.11 At this point, the first task of the committee will be to define the scope and identify potential working groups. For example, a potential starting point might be examining the requirements for current research facilities. Weaver12 described the design of a university nanotechnology laboratory incorporating capability for both semiconductor and biological requirements. Information on these initiatives can be found at the IEST Web site (


Nanotechnology research investments are accelerating and are beginning to result in new products. As envisioned in the nanotechnology roadmap, generations of products with ever-increasing complexity will be introduced in the next decade. The ability to develop new materials and devices has outstripped our ability to characterize or even name them. The worldwide standards movement is an early step towards maturity. IEST is beginning an important program in defining facility requirements to support the long-term development of nanotechnology.


  1. Roco, M. C., R. S. Williams, and P. Alivisatos, eds. “Nanotechnology Research Directions,” U.S. National science and Technology Council, Washington, D.C. 1999. See:
  2. Roco, M. C. “Nanoscale science and engineering: Unifying and transforming tools,” AIChE Journal, 50:5 890-897, 2004.
  3. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “The National Nanotechnology Initiative at five years: Assessment and recommendations of the national nanotechnology advisory panel,” May 2005. See:
  4. Oberdorster, G. et al. “Principles for characterizing the potential human health effects from exposure to nanomaterials: Elements of a screening strategy,” Particle and Fibre Toxicology. October 2005, 6. See:
  5. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “Strategic Plan for NIOSH Nanotechnology Research: Filling the Knowledge Gaps.” See: topics/nanotech/pdfs/NIOSH_Nanotech_Strategic_Plan.pdf
  6. IEEE Nanotechnology Standards Working Group. “Draft Test Methods for Measurement of Electrical Properties of Carbon Nanotubes.” See:
  7. ASTM Committee E56 on Nanotechnology. See:
  8. British Standards Institute. “PAS 71:2005 Vocabulary-Nanoparticles.” See:
  9. ANSI Nanotechnology Standards Panel. See: nsp/overview.aspx? menuid=3
  10. British Standards Institute. “Large scale gains for small scale work” (press release). See:
  11. The Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (IEST) Web site. See:
  12. Weaver, J. “A design for combining biological and semiconductor cleanrooms for nanotechnology research-A case study,” IESTJ, 2005.

David S. Ensor is a Senior Fellow and center director at the Research Triangle Institute with responsibilities for Aerosol Technology. He is a graduate of the University of Washington with a PhD in engineering. Dr. Ensor is a founding editor of the journal Aerosol Research and Technology. He has been active in aerosol science for thirty years and in contamination control for over twenty years. He is an IEST Fellow and is one of the editors of the Journal of the IEST. Dr. Ensor is the Convenor of ISO/TC 209 Working Group 7 with responsibility for ISO 14644-7 “Separative devices (clean air hoods, gloveboxes, isolators, minienvironments),” and a member of the ANSI-accredited United States Technical Advisory Group to ISO/TC 209 “Cleanrooms and associated controlled environments.” He is also a member of the ANSI-accredited United States Technical Advisory Group for ISO/TC 229 “Nanotechnologies,” and a member of the U.S. Delegation.


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