The clue to the nature of this cross-cutting technology lies in the prefix "nano": nanotechnology deals with structures on a microscopic scale. Nano is the prefix for the unit of measurement nanometre (nm), which equals one billionth of a metre. In October 2011 the European Commission published a Recommendation which defines a nanomaterial as a material with dimensions in the size range one to 100 nanometres (exceptions possible).
To form an idea of how big, or rather how small, a nanometre is it helps to draw comparisons with the human body: A cross-section of a human hair, for instance, measures around 80,000 nanometres. Our red blood cells are even smaller, at a width of 2000 to 5000 nanometres. A DNA string is about two nanometres wide. The ratio of a nanometre to a metre is equivalent to that of a hazelnut to planet Earth.
What exactly does this technology, which is often labelled a key enabling technology of the 21st century, have to offer? Can it facilitate innovations which will visibly advance environmental protection and resource efficiency?
The most important point is that materials on the nanoscale can display new functionalities and properties. These include self-cleaning properties, hardness, break resistance, conductivity or storage capabilities. In accordance Nanomaterials need to be regulated. Nanomaterials are used particularly in the food, automotive and IT sectors, in medicine, innovative construction materials, clothing, cosmetics, and cleaning and maintenance products.
There are still unanswered questions on the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology for the environment, resource conservation and human health. The industry has to guarantee product safety.
The BMUB is also working to promote the responsible use of nanomaterials. The BMUB's tasks in this area include the following: