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Finding the smallest of standards

OTTAWA — Standards govern most facets of your daily life, whether or not you're aware of it. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has more than 16, 500 international standards including 567 applying to road vehicles, 193 applying to fasteners, one for the symbols on bathroom doors and one for wine-tasting glasses. Yes, wine tasting.


But now the ISO is setting its sights on smaller standards, and creating specifications for the rapidly developing field of nanotechnology.

The move to create international standards for nanotech started four years ago, in 2005. Standardization is overseen by ISO technical committee number 229, which is divided into four working groups. One deals with terminology and nomenclature while the second deals with measurement and characterization. The third examines health, safety and environmental standards and the fourth, material specifications.

An ISO publication dealing with nanotech
The ISO recognized the need for nanotech standards in their February 2009 issue of Focus magazine.

The process involves not just the ISO, but individual countries that contribute their own research. Canada acts as convener for the terminology and nomenclature working group but is involved with the others as well.

Jennifer Decker, chair of ISO Working Group Two, works with dimensional metrology at the National Research Council's Institute for National Measurement Standards. She says the need for standards arose when nanotechnology started to move from being a discovery science to a technology. The ability to measure and characterize objects will enable this change, she says.

"Nanotechnology is predicted to have a huge economic impact, so when we look at what we need to know to be able to use nano to have commercial benefit, the first thing is we need to be able to make things, so we need to be able to measure things well enough to make things."

Standards: Good for researcher, good for consumer

Maria DeRosa, an assistant chemistry professor at Carleton University in Ottawa has encountered the same issues that Decker describes. She says one of the major problems with not having standards is, as the field of nanotech grows, it can be difficult to replicate experiments because other labs may not be using comparable materials.

"In chemistry we know that the name is related to the structure, and the structure is related to the chemistry. In nano people are just naming things, and especially on the nanoscale, small differences are going to make a big difference in the properties," says DeRosa.

She goes on to say that standards will also be useful when it comes to creating consumer goods and will give consumers a better awareness of what is in their products. This will eventually lead to regulations.

Carbon nanotubes grown at the National Institute for Nanotechnology
A carbon nanotube film grown at the National Institute for Nanotechnology. Metrology standards are being developed for carbon nanotubes, for the purpose of quality control.

"Maybe right now it's totally fine, and no one notices that there's nanosilver on our anti-microbial socks but maybe once they go though this process of standardizing and figuring out the properties and toxicity of something like nanosilver, then maybe they're going to say 'OK, we can't allow this to be in our socks.'"

Not that simple

But creating standards for nanomaterials is not as simple as whipping out a ruler, says Peter Hatto, chairman of ISO technical committee 229.

"You don't take a ruler and measure a particle, you've got to use some sort of physical properties of that particle."

On top of that, measuring a nanomaterial requires the use of many different techniques to find all the pertinent information, says Decker.

'You don't take a ruler and measure a particle, you've got to use some sort of physical properties of that particle.'

It is also a long process. Creating a technical specification takes about two years and requires the consensus of at least five of the ISO technical committee's participating countries. A full international standard however, must go through all of the 160 member countries of ISO, whether or not they participated in the initial standard. This takes about three years.

And even then, nothing is for sure. Standards are subject to review every two to three years, depending on whether they are technical specifications or international standards.

"Standards just provide agreed ways of doing things, or naming things or describing things or specifying things and they're not written in stone, they're not the Ten Commandments," says Hatto.

What's coming down the (nano) tube?

Decker says the development of these standards is happening very rapidly. ISO technical committees normally meet once a year, but technical committee 229 is currently on an accelerated schedule and meets every six months. She says this is because nanotechnology is recognized as a technology in rapid development, but with a lack of documentary standards. In order to promote nanotech as a commercial technology, standards must be established.

He says it really all boils down to knowing what you're getting.

"Nanomaterials are difficult to evaluate and there's a need to have confidence in what you're purchasing. No one buys steel without buying it against a specification. If you're going to have extensive trade in these materials, you need specifications that you can rely upon. In any area of commerce, specifications give you confidence."

Frontpage photo courtesy of Peter Hatto, ISO

Related Links

ISO technical committee 229 for nanotechnologies

The National Research Council's Institute for National Measurement Standards

YouTube Video — The basics of nanotech



Nano what? A few helpful definitions

Nanometer: Equal to one-billionth of a meter. Zooming in from a bristol board to a nanometer is equivalent to zooming in from a view of the entire province of Ontario to a postage stamp.

Nano object: Materials with one, two or three dimensions in the size range from approximately one to 100 nanometres. Nano objects include nano plates, nanofibres and nanoparticles.

Nanomaterial: Encompasses both "nano-objects" and "nano-structured materials," which are bulk materials that have important features on the nanoscale (1-100 nm).

Source: Jennifer Lee and Maria DeRosa, Carleton University


How DO you measure a nanomaterial?

Measurement of nanomaterials are achieved through a combination of methods, including:

  • Imaging using electron microscopes to create a larger image of the object in question
  • Thermogravimetric analysis to look at changes in weight based on changes in temperature
  • Photoluminescence spectroscopy to help determine the electronic structure of the material.

Source: Jennifer Decker, NRC


What's next?

Since the ISO started to consider nanotechnology in 2005, two standards have been published, including one for terminology of nano objects.
The next standard is due to come out within the next four or five months, and deals with terminology for carbon nano objects specifically.

Source: Peter Hatto, ISO


© Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication