Microtechnology vs. Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is revolutionizing today's products, along with tomorrow's.
- By Paul Harris
- Jan 01, 2010
Are you getting the highest levels of respiratory
protection that are currently available
Our safety industry is in a transitional period
as nanotechnology has created higher levels of respiratory
protection. Traditionally, respirators have relied on
filter media to block or trap airborne particles. The size of
these airborne particles is typically measured in microns
(μm), each of which is one millionth of a meter. A single
strand of human hair is about 100 μm wide.
If you work in an environment that has dust, chemical
fumes, aerosols, or oils, you are primarily concerned with
preventing the inhalation of harmful substances — not
cross contamination of viruses or bacteria between individuals
when you remove your mask, then shake hands
with a co-worker or touch the handle of the break room
With the emergence of the H1N1 virus on a global
scale last year, the general public became more informed
about prevention, as well as containment strategies. Because
of this greater awareness, respiratory protection
has been discussed at great lengths: What type of mask
should I wear? Should it be NIOSH certified or FDA or
CE approved? Would a product with a valve offer more
or less protection? Will a nuisance mask protect against
H1N1? What would offer the highest level of protection?
When H1N1 flu came, it forced people to learn about
it, learn how to prevent its spread, and learn how to contain
it. Everyone in the United States can say they know
someone — a relative, a friend, a relative's or friend's child
— who has had swine flu in the past year. So it has hit
much closer to home for the U.S. population.
Enter the science of nanotechnology. How large is a
nanometer? By definition, nanotechnology deals with
structures of the size 100 nanometers or smaller and involves
developing materials or devices within that size. A
nanometer is a unit of length in the metric system equal
to one billionth of a meter. A single sheet of paper is about
100,000 nanometers thick.
Nanotechology is revolutionizing today's products,
along with tomorrow's. This is not a passing fad or buzzword
that will soon disappear. Our own government feels
so strongly about the future of nanotech that it has created
the National Nanotechnology Initiative,
which provides a multi-agency framework to ensure U.S.
leadership in nanotechnology that will be essential to improved
human health, economic well-being, and national
security. The NNI has a 2010 budget of $1.6 billion.
What are some products that utilize nanotech that are
currently available? The list includes stain-resistant
clothing, coatings on eyeglasses to keep the lenses from
scratching and make them easier to clean, lighter baseball
bats and tennis rackets, and almost all electronic devices
manufactured in the last decade. All use some nanomaterials,
according to NNI.
Where will we see nanotech in the future? Keep an eye
on solar panels, fuel cells, batteries, environmental waste
cleanup, drinking water purification, and medicines.
Nanotech will make tomorrow's products lighter, stronger,
more precise, and more environmentally friendly.
Now, we'll return to respirators. Traditional respirators
do a great job of filtering. In an industrial application
where you're dealing with dust, oils, or aerosols, nanotechnology
is not so much needed because your concern
is blocking those particles — you are not concerned
about transfer of any type of harmful viruses or bacteria.
So from an industrial side, microtechnology works great.
But when you're looking for the next stage or the evolution
of respiratory protection, you're looking for not
only what blocks or filters those contaminants, but also
what kills the particles that are blocked on the face of that
mask. Respirators that utilize nanotech provide this level
of protection, one that has not been offered previously.
Using nanotechnology first developed by NASA, the
protective mask utilizes a proprietary nanocoating technology
on the outermost layer that not only traps viruses, bacteria, and fungi, but also effectively breaks
them down on the cellular level, rendering
Independent laboratory test results confirm the antimicrobial properties of the mask
are significantly effective in neutralizing the
common cold, tuberculosis, MRSA, and
H5N1 avian flu, which is more deadly than
the current H1N1 virus strain. The mask goes
beyond filtration by neutralizing and destroying
these microbes, making them harmless to
the environment and breaking the transmission
This new level of respiratory protection
incorporating nanotechnology has been presented
to a worldwide audience, including:
- World Health Organization (Geneva,
- NIOSH (Pennsylvania, 2008)
- Food and Drug Administration
- International Air Travel Association
- International Red Cross (Spain, 2008)
- U.S. Pandemic Committee, HHS
(Washington, D.C., 2009)
- U.S. Department of Homeland Security
(Washington, D.C., 2009)
- U.S. Department of Defense (Washington,
Tommy Thompson, former U.S. secretary
of Health and Human Services in Washington,
endorses the mask, which offers bi-directional
protection with seven-layer construction
(versus the three-layer industry standard
for respirators), including an active charcoal
filter that disables viruses at the cellular level,
repels airborne moisture, and filters fine particles,
blood, bacteria, and viruses. The mask
also offers two-way protection, both for the
wearer who might be infected and thus containing
a virus so the family is not infected and
for co-workers protecting themselves from an
infected individual. Bi-directional protection
shields the wearer from contracting or spreading
a virus up to 24 hours, which is extremely
valuable during a pandemic situation.
As HHS secretary, "my focus then was
on pharmaceuticals interventions, as well,"
Thompson said. "But with better understanding
of proper respirator use and the correct
way to use them, coupled with technological
advances, respirators should now be considered
as a first line of defense to reduce infection
transmission against airborne diseases
such as the flu pandemic, complimenting
To date, neither NIOSH nor the FDA has
established a test predicate for respirators
with nanotechnology, despite the evidence
of higher levels of protection. However, test
predicates may be on the drawing board for
both of them. Items with nanotechnology
are on the agenda for the next meeting of the
International Safety Equipment Association's
Respiratory Protection product group; that
meeting will take place in early 2010.
For the future, the best thing is that people
are more educated. Hand sanitizers and other
sanitary methods are important, but respiratory
protection will remain a very important
piece of the puzzle. If the swine flu and avian
flu mix and mutate, creating something that's
easily transferred from person to person and
has the deadliness of the avian flu, we have a
real problem. Respiratory protection will be
increasingly needed in the future as more and
more of these mutations occur.
The bottom line is, there are greater protection
levels available now than were available
in the past. We need to be looking at how
we can make those safe and afford users the
higher level of protection.
Nanotechnology has grown faster than
current test methods to endorse these new capabilities,
such as neutralizing and killing bacteria.
Nanotechnology will continue changing
the performance level of products for years to
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.