From consumer goods to medicines: you encounter nanoparticles more often than you think. It is said that nanotechnology will change the world. VITO is developing nanotechnology expertise from various angles in order to fully exploit the value of this technology while taking the potential risks into account.

Infinite number of uses and risks of nanoparticles

Nanotechnology covers the development, production and use of very small particles, roughly less than 100 nanometres in size (one ten-thousandth of a millimetre). At that scale, particles have different electrical, optical, thermal and mechanical properties. This allows products or materials with new or improved properties to be made. Nanomaterials are also used in many applications such as coatings, inks and paints, food, packaging, cosmetics, sensors, and even medication. VITO is investigating the opportunities, benefits and risks of nanotechnology throughout the value chain.

Sustainable alternatives to existing production processes

Working at nanoscale is not new for VITO. Jan Meneve: “Making manipulations at nanoscale was a logical step in our activities related to materials technology. For decades we at VITO have been accumulating experience in coatings and plasmas. These technologies have now reached the market. Today we are again looking several steps down the road. Thus we have numerous technologies and the infrastructure to characterise the impact of nanoparticles. We are also looking into sustainable alternatives to existing manufacturing processes.” VITO has patented technology for the synthesis of our own nanomaterials. Karolien Vanbroekhoven: “We have already applied a technology based on ‘electrocapacitive crystallisation’ in a number of projects. The big advantage over existing technologies on the market is the gentle production method with which we can change the shape and size distribution of nanocrystals. This involves an electrochemical process that occurs in an aqueous environment. The mild conditions – no solvents or high temperatures are used – make the process much more environmentally friendly than conventional techniques. At present, we are able to produce 2 grams of nanocrystals per hour in the lab. Numerous industries, including the cosmetic and pharmaceutical sectors as well as the high-tech industry, will be able to benefit in the future from this breakthrough.”

Safety by design

Nanomaterials have special characteristics, but exposure to them can adversely affect humans and the environment. Since nanoparticles are so small, they can penetrate deep into the lungs, brains, and cells. They can also be flammable and explosive. Sven Vercauteren: “It is important to identify these risks in time by applying the safe-by-design concept. This means that reflection on the dangers of human exposure to nanoparticles starts already in the development phase. Early screening allows us to know whether it is useful to invest further in the development and whether it is necessary to adapt the functionality of particles to make them safer. VITO guides companies in this area and advises them how to best protect their employees from potential exposure during the production or processing of nanomaterials.

Inge Nelissen: “Determining the risks of nanoparticles is not evident. The challenge consists in measuring the exact level of exposure, and combining this with particle-specifi c properties in order to arrive at a particle’s toxicity. Sensitive instruments and methods are needed for this assessment. And we have these at VITO.”

Eliminating negative impacts

You can eliminate negative impacts by giving nanoparticles a different shape. VITO founded the Nanosafety Test Centre in 2010. Here specifi c steps in the production phase are simulated, as are the processing and use of products containing nanomaterials. Sven Vercauteren: “Including safety from the start of development is the ideal scenario. But we are also focusing on the testing of industrial and consumer products containing nanomaterials. This is usually done on behalf of companies. The products are subjected to standard operations such as drilling, cutting or grinding to see if nanomaterials are released.” “In Europe it is recommended to give an indication if a product contains nanoparticles, and such an indication is even required in the case of cosmetics. But these guidelines are not systematically applied. Which is why we monitor the exposure caused by certain consumer goods. We perform these tests for both businesses and the government.”

Detecting cancer and cardiovascular disease early

If we manage to avoid the risks of nanoparticles, nanotechnology could even contribute to better health. A new range of innovative products and technological solutions that improve health exists thanks to nanomaterials. Inge Nelissen: “We are also putting our experience in measuring and characterising nanoparticles to use in the development of cost effective and more personalised healthcare. Thus we are investigating the interaction between nanoparticles and living cells. How are the particles absorbed? How do they interact within the cell? This knowledge can result in new treatments. In addition, nanoparticles play an important role in research on diagnosing disease. Recent studies have focused on isolating and characterising extracellular vesicles. These are nanoscale blisters that are secreted by cells – healthy and sick – in our bodily fluids. Once the vesicles are isolated, researchers can perform protein or DNA analyses to identify biomarkers for disease. This allows for example the early detection of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.”

Valorising knowledge in all areas

Karolien Vanbroekhoven: “Our nanocharacterisation platform covers a broad range of applications, including medical. That is the strength of VITO: we are able to valorise our knowledge and experience simultaneously in different fields. Companies that today use or produce nanocrystals can come to us to have their safety checked. However, we do not only test, but also review the production processes. Together with companies, we evaluate whether the nanocomponents they use can be produced in an alternative or more sustainable way. We also offer our services to governments and we are initiating our own medical developments. Thus we are committed to fully exploring the infi nite possibilities of nanotechnology.”