Has advised the UN, NATO, OECD, and EU on science, technology, innovation, and policy and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35.
Who is responsible for establishing whether a new nanomaterial or nanoparticle is dangerous? How do we dispose of and recycle these products safely? And how early in the production process should we ascertain whether or not these materials are toxic?
These are some of the questions that preoccupy researcher Bartlomiej Kolodziejczyk, a material scientist and technologist based in Melbourne, Australia, who’s at the cutting edge of policy making and research regarding nanotechnology.
His most high-profile focus is on how we should dispose of nanowaste, and on examining its long-term effects on biodiversity and human health, at a time when more and more consumer products are beginning to make use of nanoparticles and materials.
In recent years Bart has written several policy briefs for the UN and the G20 on these topics, but just what is nanotechnology, and how vital will it be in our future world? Watch our interview to discover the ways in which this new innovation is bringing with it even newer challenges; and learn about the people who are already trying to tackle them.
Bart: My name is Bart Kolodziejczyk. I am a material scientist/nanotechnologist and I’m based in Melbourne Australia.
Nerina: And I’m Nerina Finetto. I welcome you to our video podcast. Today we’re going to speak about nanotechnology and nano waste. How did you become a nanotechnologist Bart?
Bart: I guess it was a long journey because my background is in mechanical engineering and mechatronics. So back in Poland where I am originally from I did that as my bachelors and then I continued for Masters. Then I did another Masters in Renewable Energy because I got interested in renewable energies. I want to explore this field; I wanted to develop new catalysts for solar cells, fuel cells, batteries, etc. Most of these materials are actually nanomaterials and that’s how I became a nanotechnologist. Nano scientists I guess.
Nerina: What is nanotechnology?
Bart: Nanotechnology deals with very small objects. So nano objects which 10 to -9 of a meter. So they’re very small, you cannot see them with our bare eyes and because of that you need to use very sophisticated equipment. So you want to see a very small world but to do that you need to use large equipment. So it’s quite a paradox. Nanoparticles or nanomaterials behave very differently on such a small scale. So we can develop new functionalities in very old materials, materials that you use every day. They can basically behave very differently if you scale them down to nano level.
Another thing is that dealing with nanotechnology is basically scaling something down. So instead of using big bulk systems you can actually scale them down and achieve the same functions on a much smaller level. Because of that for example your microchips can be the same size but more powerful.
Nerina: The solutions and the opportunities nano technology presents seem too unlimited. But are there any downsides?
Bart: Basically doing research is nanotechnology at one point I realized that this is amazing. We develop all these new things, new solutions but there will be a problem in the future. How do we basically manage nano waste? So waste that originates from nanotechnology. Because nanotechnology and synthetic biology they can potentially change our lives, virtually many applications but we need to think about how we use it. We have to use it safely; we have to dispose it safely.
Nerina: Is this a new situation?
Bart: The story behind nanotechnology can be compared to the story behind computers. We developed computers. We’ve been talking about them for many, many years but it took some time until we actually got our PC. Similar story is with nanotechnology. We’ve been hearing about it for many, many years but that was at laboratory scale mostly. But recently we started seeing products that are based on nanotechnology or nanomaterials.
The tech industrial revolution which is also called e-revolution or electronic revolution brought many different electronic solutions: computers, solutions in telecommunication etc. but we over flooded by e-waste or electronic waste. It’s just too expensive and too complex to basically recycle it or reuse it. I mean we simply dispose it. Unfortunately even if we want to we cannot do the same with nanotechnology. So once nanotechnology product reaches the end of its lifetime we need to think how to dispose it safely and we need to think about it right now because later it might be too late.
Nerina: What makes nano waste so dangerous? Why is there no urgency in this?
Bart: Many of these nanoparticles and nanomaterials are very chemically active, some of them are even toxic to the environment, ecosystems, biodiversity and human health and they are also invisible for the bare eye. So they can change entire ecosystems or affect our bodies and we won’t even realize why because we simply cannot see it.
So we basically need to think of solutions of how to safely dispose these products when they reach the end of their lifetime or better recycle them if possible. But to do that we need to basically reinforce some regulations and this has to be done using top down approaches. So basically governments need to step up and say, “Oh, we are basically developing this new technology, it is very promising but we need to regulate it. So how do we dispose safely these products? How do we recycle them?”
Nano waste will be growing rapidly with our use of nanotechnology. It is a very different issue to electronic waste or just general waste because you don’t know if it is there but it is there and it’s changing the environments because of the high chemical reactivity and many of them are highly toxic as well. So this our new challenge, completely new type of challenge that we have never come across.
Nerina: How are you involved in this topic?
Bart: I started getting interested in this topic of nanowaste, management of nanowaste, disposal, safe disposal, recycling etc. and basically I started actively urging the governments and different international organizations trying to develop efficient ways of disposing nanowaste. So I’ve written several different policy briefs and policy papers and I try to basically introduce them to UN, OECD, and European Commission. Secondly I worked with G20. So basically I am a policy maker that acts form bottom up. So I just come up with these ideas and solution and then try to basically introduce my ideas to organizations that can make it happen.
Nerina: What kind of suggestions did you make in this policy papers?
Bart: I have created a few different policy papers. So different policy papers discuss different issues on the same problem. In some I kind of established debate, in some I proposed specific solutions. So some of the things that I’m asking is who is responsible for establishing whether certain nanomaterial and new nanomaterial is dangerous or not, how toxic it is, how to dispose it safely. So will it be a researcher who develops this material for example in the lab or will it be a company that later on uses this material in commercial products? How early do we have to establish whether this material is toxic, etc.?
And also some of the things that I mentioned in policy papers is that there is a lot of funding to basically take nanotechnology further, to develop new nanomaterials, new applications for them but not much money is put into establishing whether they are safe, how chemically reactive they are etc. We need to establish that. How they basically react when we leave them in the environment? They can react differently to different environments. So for example different environmental conditions will cause different reactions in nanomaterials. If it’s dry environment, if it’s wet environment, how sunny it is etc. all these factors play a role in establishing how these materials can affect our health and ecosystems. So basically my policy papers are more of I try to push a debate and discuss all these issues rather than proposing specific solutions.
Nerina: Could you give me an example about how nanomaterials behave in a different way than normal materials?
Bart: So when we basically scale one material to a nano level they behave very differently. They have different properties both mechanical, chemical etc. For example, when we speak of silver; we use silver in bulk to basically make different types of jewelry. But when we scale it down silver can become very chemically reactive. So silver nanoparticles are actually used as antimicrobial kind of treatment. So there are for example already socks in the market that have some kind of silver nanoparticle coating and because of that they don’t smell. So you wear them but they don’t smell because they kill all the microbes that produce this odor.
And for example there is one facility in China that produces silver nanoparticles but the safety standards are not that great in this facility and basically everything around this facility is kind of dead. It’s a bare land because silver nanoparticles killed all the microbes, microorganisms in the soil. Without them basically other plants and animals cannot function because these microbes produce some substances that are essential for other forms of life to exist. The entire area around the factory is basically bare land that’s because silver nanoparticles killed some microbes that are actually beneficial for the soil, soil microbes.
Nerina: As a consumer can I see if they’re some nanoparticles in the products that I’m using?
Bart: There is no specific kind of sticker that is put on them saying that nanotechnology inside or something like that. So you really need to be a chemist and read the description, ingredients to distinguish whether you’re dealing with products that contain nanomaterial’s, nanoparticles or not. So for example many people use toothpaste or sunscreen but they’re not aware that there are nanoparticles of Titanium Dioxide, Tio2.
Nerina: Are there any studies about the dangers to our health?
Bart: So for example, the recent studies several of them actually show that Titanium Dioxide can cause cancer or affect our nervous system but no one has banned it as yet. So there’s no governmental policy to ban Titanium Dioxide even though it’s widely used in toothpaste, in sunscreens, as an artificial sweetener for our food products etc. I have not heard so far that any government has basically stepped up and said, “Oh we should ban Titanium Dioxide.” We are using Titanium Dioxide broadly but we’ve never realized that there might be issues associated with that.
Nerina: What has to be done in your opinion?
Bart: I guess one way is to raise awareness. It has to be a more kind of consolidated action because by myself I cannot do much. It has to be driven by more people and there are actually organizations that are already exploring these issues and trying to address it but the process is slightly slow. Maybe too slow than it should be but previously that was the case with asbestos. So we realized that it is highly toxic, it can cause lung cancer and basically one government after another followed and they banned it. So I guess at one point it will be a similar case with Titanium Dioxide. So basically raising awareness is one way.
The other way is to basically develop effective and efficient ways of disposing different nanomaterials and this has to be regulated with some sort of policies.
Nerina: What would you like the researchers to do, that policy makers do, that consumer do?
Bart: I guess whenever you develop new nanomaterial or new nanoparticle a part of your responsibility is also to at least some basic tests how these new nanomaterial’s can effect environment in different environmental conditions and what can be basically health issues associated with these new nanomaterials, just basic. That will give ideas to whoever wants to use it further to basically to do more in-depth tests. Policymakers to regulate the field, to work together with scientists to develop effective ways for disposing all these nanomaterials and consumers to be more aware and more educated. But again these awareness and education have to come from our scientists again.
Nerina: What will Bart do in the future?
Bart: I kind of got intrigued by this science policy field, science advice and I now realize it’s very different to just doing scientific research. It is more interdisciplinary because you need to have knowledge in both law and regulations and also your specific field of research. So in that case it is nanotechnology and also synthetic biology because synthetic biology has similar problems to nanotechnology. So we kind of try to explore both.
That was a great journey, just another journey, very different one. But the output and what I’ve read from all these organizations that I worked with was very encouraging. So basically I got really into it, I really got into science policy field and science advice. I’m very interested in science law these days so that’s something I would like to continue in my free time. I do all these nanowaste and synthetic biology kind of activities in my free time. It became in a way my hobby, it’s a bit weird to say my hobby is science policy but I guess that’s what I do in my free time.
Nerina: What do you focus on right now in your research?
Bart: Well I guess there are many opportunities that arise from research. You have this idea, you develop this idea, you come up with certain solutions. So it’s not only about doing research but doing applicable research that actually helps us to develop further as a community. So I guess that’s why at one point I decided to leave. I’m still kind of doing scientific research but its more hands on, more applicable.
I’m currently with a Singapore based company that manufactures state-of-the-art electrolyzers. Electrolyzer is like an electrochemical basically cell where you apply electricity. You have two electrodes and in our case we are into hydrogen production. So we put these electrodes into the water and we split water particles and on one electrode you get oxygen, on the other one you get hydrogen. So we’re trying to make a shift towards a hydrogen economy.
In our company there is also quite a bit of research, it’s very exciting, very noble. So yeah that’s what I do currently.
Nerina: I guess we have to have one more conversation about this project and the future of energy. Do you see yourself as a change maker?
Bart: I guess I don’t want to think of myself as a change maker. I do make some change but I get there using very small steps, so step by step and eventually you will get there. So slowly but systematically I guess. In a way you bring change but it’s not like you don’t make a change over a day or over a period of a week but eventually you will make it.
Nerina: Who inspired or inspires you?
Bart: I guess my mom was one of them because she gave birth to me. She was always there when we were young to support us, she was very protective, and she kind of ignited this curiosity in us; I mean in me and my brothers. The second very important person in my life was I guess my PHD supervisor. I have massive respect to him, to my supervisor. He was really like a father to not only to me but also to other PHD students. But I guess right now the most important person is my fiancée Ranthini. We are getting married next year in Malaysia. It will be a Hindu wedding so there’s a lot for me to learn. All the different cultural rituals, all the wedding rituals are very different compared to my European culture, Christian culture. So that will be interesting.
Nerina: Good luck on all your projects and I wish you all the best with the wedding preparations.
Bart: Thank you Nerina for having me and for your time.
Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation Bart.
Nerina: And thank you for watching.
Here a follow-up video with Bart Kolodziejczyk speaking about synthetic biology, gene drives and the need of regulations.