The field of engineered nanomaterials is still an emerging area, attracting great attention from the scientific and industrial communities due to its transformative potential. Among the different types of nanomaterials, boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs), cousins of the better-known carbon nanotubes and among the strongest, lightest, and most chemically resistant nanoscale fibres known to exist, were discovered in the mid-1990s. Yet it is only in the last five years, following a breakthrough in production by the National Research Council Canada (NRC), that they have been synthesized in sufficient quantities to begin to make use of their extremely interesting properties. This large production capacity is an enabling tool that can provide Canadian companies with a significant advantage in developing, prototyping, manufacturing and commercializing high-value products containing this remarkable material.
However, when it comes to new materials, there is an inherent uncertainty about the long-term safety of their use by industry and in consumer products. To determine whether a material is safe to consume, smell or touch, or if exposure in a work environment might pose any risk, requires careful testing and that health and safety protocols, policies and standards be put in place. The process of developing this knowledge and building the health and safety framework takes time and a deliberate, concerted effort.
Safety in the labs
Stéphane Dénommée, a chemist and facilities manager for the nanomaterials laboratories for the Security and Disruptive Technologies Research Centre, is one of the NRC scientists that is part of this concerted effort. Stéphane is collaborating with other national and international organizations and participating in national and international committees tasked with developing occupational safety and health standards for nanomaterials. This work enables the NRC to safely and responsibly develop new technologies exploiting BNNTs and other nanomaterials in the lab. Best practices developed are transferred to clients and partners, and help determine answers to the questions asked by national health and safety regulatory bodies to ensure safe and rapid adoption by industry and the public.
"We are taking the processes we learned in the production of carbon nanotubes, applying them to boron nitride nanotubes and then taking extra precautions to account for what we don't yet know," says Mr. Dénommée. "When members from other organizations come to visit our lab, we receive very positive comments regarding our cleanliness. We are proud to say that others have adopted some of our practices and have used our data to prove that we are doing the correct things in terms of safety."
Recently, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a highly respected organization in its field, visited the NRC labs in Ottawa to provide an evaluation of the work practices, processes, and controls, as well as the potential for occupational exposures to BNNTs specific to its operations.
"We were pleased to collaborate with the NRC to provide an onsite assessment of potential occupational exposure to BNNTs," said Eric Glassford, NIOSH industrial hygienist. "This is an exciting new area of materials, but it isn't without its health and safety challenges. This in turn will provide a better understanding of the health and safety challenges related to BNNTs as the NRC works to responsibly develop these materials."
With innovation, comes responsibility
The NRC has a long history of developing innovative products and new materials. Armed with this experience and the devoted efforts of scientists like Stéphane, the NRC has already developed strict safety guidelines for handling BNNTs. With their steadfast integration into new products, BNNTs will continue to progress from the labs to the manufacturing floors. The NRC is actively advancing the state of knowledge of safe handling procedures to keep up with the timeline to commercialization.