News & Opinions
The latest news and insights from Hanley Wood’s outspoken experts and key thought-leaders throughout the residential and commercial design and construction industry.
Is Nanotechnology the Next Sustainability Wave in Design and Building?
Holly Cave / The Guardian / April 10, 2014
Since the advent of computer modelling in the early 1990s, architects have been able to conceptually manipulate not just the very large, but also the very small. Already, nanotechnology is found in the buildings springing up around us: in products such as self-cleaning glass, self-healing paint, and tougher steel bolts and cables. Chemicals company BASF, for example, produces Master X-Seed – a concrete additive containing nanoparticles of calcium silicate hydrate that cause the substance to harden twice as quickly.
Surprised? You’re not alone. Even the people who really ought to know about the presence of nanoparticles in building materials are often completely unaware of their existence.
A 2012 survey of UK designers and occupational health and safety advisers found that very few of the 322 participants believed nanotechnology had ever been used in one of their projects. They were probably rather shocked by the list of nanoparticle-containing products they were presented with afterwards.
A newly funded project led by Prof Alistair Gibb at Loughborough University aims to tackle this knowledge black hole, a status compounded by the fact that nanomaterials are not required to be listed under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations. The team’s work aims to identify and record the nanoparticles used throughout the construction industry.
“Some nanoparticles have been cited as generating health problems,” says Gibb, “but there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to persuade governments to take specific action. It is just as important to establish that a product does not contain harmful particles, or that they do not become bioavailable through these processes such as demolition, as it is to find out that they do. We want to help society to take advantage of these ‘wonder materials’, but in a safe and healthy manner.”
The term “wonder material” is one we have heard before. Synonymous with asbestos – the 19th century material lauded for its ability to insulate against heat, fire and sound – the phrase rings alarm bells. By the time asbestos was proven to be toxic, it was concealed everywhere, from walls and ceilings to pipes and floor tiles. Like asbestos, could nanotechnology prove too good to be true?
As Gibb states, there is significant research suggesting that some manufactured nanomaterials are hazardous to health. Carbon nanotubes – used in a range of products including ceramics, cement and high-strength steel – are one of those with a question mark hanging over them. Potentially toxic nanoparticles such as carbon nanotubes may remain harmless whilst embedded into the material, but the destruction of the material may make the nanoparticles “bioavailable” – meaning that they could be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.
Now, as back then, legislation simply cannot keep the pace with the rapid expansion of nanotechnology research and development. In the meantime, Gibb’s team are attempting to fill in as many of the blanks as possible. “Our work is aimed at increasing our knowledge so that we can apply prudence. If we know where nanomaterials are and record that, then if the research does end up proving the worst, we can do something about it in the future.”