Nano in brief

Nanomaterials are now available on the market in a variety of applications. Synthetic nanomaterials, nano-coatings and nanostructures can give products special properties.  

Everyday nano

Nanotechnology and the special properties of nanomaterials make it possible to develop new products that can be used in many different fields. Surfaces can be made scratch-resistant, dirt-repellent, water-repellent or antibacterial, and plastics can be made lighter and more robust. Surface structures and coatings enable water to run off, and make surfaces conduct electricity.

Numerous foodstuffs contain natural nanomaterials (e.g. the casein that is found in milk). However, only a few foodstuffs and food additives on the Swiss market currently contain nano-scale ingredients. These include silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent), carotenoids (pigments or nutritionally beneficial substances) and micelles (capsules for vitamins, flavours, coenzyme Q10, etc.). These are not novel nanomaterials, but products that have been manufactured and safely used for many years.

Coated nano-sized titanium dioxide is used as a UV filter in some sun protection products with high SPF factors. Nano titanium dioxide is one of the most studied nanomaterials. Various studies show that nano-sized titanium dioxide cannot penetrate the body through healthy skin.

As regards packaging, there are now composite films and plastic bottles on the market whose barrier properties against gases and flavouring agents have been optimised by nanotechnology. Clay nano-composites and silicon dioxide are used for this purpose.

Nanomaterials are also formed and released during the process of erosion, volcanic eruptions and forest fires. Combustion processes release ultra-fine particles into the environment. Common naturally occurring nanomaterials include amorphous silicon dioxide, soot and ash.

Nanomaterials can also occur as by-products of production processes. The most significant synthetic nanomaterials in terms of quantity include carbon black (industrially produced soot), silicon dioxide, calcium carbonate and titanium dioxide.

The term «nano» is not currently used consistently:

  • Nanomaterials may be contained in products either in a free form, in a loosely combined form (agglomerated) or in a fixed, closely combined (aggregated) form.
  • Products labelled as "nano" may be free from nanomaterials, and may only form a nano-thickness coating when they are used.
  • Nanomaterials may be incorporated into stable objects (e.g. plastics) or may adhere to their surface.
  • Alternatively, objects may simply have nano-sized surface structures.

Advanced materials

In 2013, the European Commission defined advanced materials as: “any material that, through the precise control of its composition and internal structure, features a series of exceptional properties (mechanical, electric, optic, magnetic, etc.) or functionalities (self-repairing, shape change, decontamination, transformation of energy, etc.) that differentiate it from the rest of the universe of materials”. Nanomaterials fall under the collective term advanced materials if they have properties that they did not have before.

The OECD Working Party on Manufactured Nanomaterials (WPMN) is working with individual countries to define a description of advanced materials. Among others, the report by the German Environment Agency (UBA) serves as a basis for this. The report discusses a potential classification of these advanced materials into different categories. The resulting factsheets provide a brief overview of the characteristic properties of the identified advanced materials, their areas of application and their potential risks and regulatory status.

German Environment Agency report: Advanced materials: Overview of the field and screening criteria for relevance assessment.

Example application of advanced materials: In 3D printing, nanomaterials as so-called advanced materials can be used as raw materials. The result is a product that is lighter and more cost effective because it can be printed/produced with less material.

Databases, product lists and market studies

Various databases, product lists and studies list the products in which nanomaterials are used. Databases also provide information on the toxicity of nanomaterials. You can find further information under «Links».

Last modification 12.05.2022

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