Nanotechnologies and Food - Science and Technology Committee Contents

CHAPTER 2: Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies


2.1.  Nanoscience is the science of the very small. A nanometre (nm) is one thousand millionth of a metre. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nm thick, a red blood cell is about 7,000 nm in diameter and an atom of gold is about 1/nm wide. Three hundred million nanoparticles, each 100 nm wide, could be fitted on to the head of a single pin.

2.2.  The concept of nanotechnology was first envisaged by Professor Richard P Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics 1965, in his 1959 lecture There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom in which he explored the possibility of arranging matter at the atomic level. The term 'nanotechnology' was not coined however until 1974, when Professor Norio Taniguchi of Tokyo Science University used it to refer to the ability to engineer materials precisely at the nanoscale.

2.3.  The advance of nanoscience picked up pace in the 1980s and 1990s, with the development of tools that allowed the observation and manipulation of matter at the nanoscale (such as the scanning tunnelling microscope in 1982 and the atomic force microscope in 1986). Nanotechnologies are now applied in a variety of sectors such as the pharmaceutical and healthcare, automotive and electronic industries. In 2000, the United States National Science Foundation estimated that the market for nanotechnology products as a whole would be worth over one trillion dollars by 2015. A report by the consultancy firm Cientifica in 2007, Half Way to the Trillion Dollar Market?, concluded that the nanotechnology market was on track to be worth one and a half trillion dollars by 2015 (see Chapter 3).

Nanoscience and nanotechnologies

2.4.  The properties of nanomaterials can differ significantly from the properties they exhibit in their larger form. For this reason, scientists across a range of disciplines have sought to understand nanomaterials and to apply them in novel ways. In 2004, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering published a report entitled Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties ("the RS/RAEng 2004 report") in which 'nanoscience' is defined as:

"the study of phenomena and manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale";

and 'nanotechnologies' as:

"the design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at the nanometre scale".[1]

2.5.  In the context of the food sector, nanoscience is the passive observation of food to understand better how it is structured and behaves at the nanoscale, while nanotechnologies are the more active manipulation of food to produce a desired effect.

2.6.  The diversity of nanomaterials makes their general regulation and risk assessment particularly challenging. There is no universally accepted regulatory definition of nanomaterials or nanotechnologies, and the difficulties caused by this were drawn to our attention by a number of witnesses.

Nanomaterials and nanoscale properties

2.7.  The RS/RAEng 2004 report suggests that there are two main reasons why materials at the nanoscale exhibit different properties from their larger form. First, nanomaterials have a relatively bigger surface area (see Table1), and as a result they may be more chemically reactive. Secondly, nanoscale materials can begin to display quantum effects in which the electronic, magnetic and optical behaviour of the material may alter. For example, the melting point of silver is approximately 960oC, yet nanosized silver can be melted with a hairdryer (Q 89), while titanium dioxide, used in its bulk form as a whitening agent, becomes transparent at the nanoscale (pp 100-103).

2.8.  Whilst the quantitative meaning of 'nano' is clear—namely, a thousand millionth—the defining feature of the point at which a particular material can be said to be a nanomaterial is not strictly quantitative: it is the point at which a material demonstrates a novel functionality as a result of its small size. Since this point varies between different types of materials, there can be no single size limit beneath which materials are automatically classified as 'nano'. Typically, novel properties begin to appear as a material's dimensions drop below 100nm but this is not invariable—one material may exhibit changed properties at 200nm while another may remain unchanged at 90nm.


Nanomaterials: Particle number and surface area over mass and volume
Particle diameter (nm)
Number of particles per gram
Total surface area cm2 per gram
1.9 x 1012
1.9 x 1015
1.9 x 1018

Source: Food Safety Authority of Ireland, The relevance of Food Safety of Applications of Nanotechnology in the Food and Feed Industries, 2008, p.41

2.9.  The term nanomaterial is a complex one. A nanomaterial may be produced that is nanoscale in one dimension (for example, a very thin film), two dimensions (for example, a carbon nanotube) or three dimensions (for example, a nanoparticle). It should be noted that although witnesses often simply referred to 'nanoparticles', in many cases their comments applied to the whole range of nanomaterials. And, although we refer generically to nanomaterials, in reality they cannot easily be grouped into a single class because they offer a vast range of different properties depending on their chemical and physical composition, and other than their size may not have any common features.


2.10.  Throughout this report we refer collectively to nano-sized structures as nanomaterials. Unless stated otherwise, our comments about applications of nanomaterials refer to the use of nanoscale substances that do not naturally occur in food products, or natural food materials that have been deliberately engineered at the nanoscale. We do not include in this category nanoscale substances naturally present in food, or those created through traditional manufacturing processes (see paragraph 1.4 for examples). We discuss these issues further in Chapter 5.

1   Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (RS/RAEng), Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, 2004, p 5. Back

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