Startup under protection. How innovators care about the work environment

When we talk about protection in the context of a startup, one thing comes to mind – the protection of intellectual property. However, it is worth looking at securing innovators also from a different, more basic perspective. Hardly anyone remembers that scientists and people working on breakthrough technologies often use substances that can be dangerous to their health on a daily basis. These include, among others, nanoparticles and other materials used in laboratories where proper operator and product protection is essential.

Most Polish startups focus today on digital projects. They focus on network security, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, but also computer or technical design. In investors’ circles, however, it is said that Poland is also a dormant volcano of nanoengineering. Little, admittedly, one reads about inventions in this field on the front pages of newspapers, it does not mean, however, that they are not spectacular. It is simply necessary to wait often for the results of research from 5 to even 7 years.

Subsidies for nanotechnology

The European Union itself sees enormous potential in nanotechnology, which eagerly subsidizes such projects, supporting the process of their commercialization. This is mainly done through the European Union Framework Program Horizon 2020, which is the largest program in the history of the Union in the field of research and innovation. From the entire budget of Horizon, amounting to 77 028,3 million euro, 3.8 billion was allocated to the so-called NMBP area, including nanotechnology, materials, biotechnology, production. Specialists predict the growth of the nano market by 17% per annum until 2024 *. Projects that already benefit from subsidies include Optogenerapy (subsidy for the Technical University of Lodz in the amount of EUR 25,000) or MMAMA co-organized by the Polish company QWED sp. O.o. (subsidy in the amount of EUR 387 750).

The future that is happening today

Such a great interest in this science is not surprising – nanomaterials affect many areas of life and technology today. Inventors and innovators use them to create and propose completely new solutions to the market. It is estimated that thanks to nanoparticles, it will be possible to produce cheaper solar energy and clean drinking water in the near future. Also, oncology therapy will change, in which surgical intervention will be rare, also the therapy of many other diseases will be cheaper, more effective and highly personalized. The last reports (published in Nature Technology) are proof of this. Researchers at Trinity College and the University of Bristol have found that the activities of metal nanoparticles can have a significant impact on the development of medical devices for the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson and Alzheimer. Improvements will also appear in broadly understood transport, which will turn towards ecology thanks to new fuel cells, batteries, supercapacitors and light materials. Nanotechnology can also bring cheap and better light sources. But, as always – let’s look at the other side of the coin. Is working with nanoparticles is completely safe?

Risky nano?

With the whole spectrum of fascinating possibilities that nanoparticles bring with them, it is important to remember about their unexplored impact on human health. The positive properties of nanotechnology go hand in hand with potential threats to man and the environment, including the work environment. Is it worth considering the issue of still unproven harm? Yes, the more that this problem concerns the ever-growing number of people. According to the GUS data, in 2016 nanotechnology activity was conducted by 107 enterprises in which 1,433 people worked, and research and development activity in this area was conducted by as many as 172 entities (3017 employees). It’s not everything. We must be aware that the number of workers exposed to nanoparticles is much greater than only those employed in the production of nanomaterials. Many of us forget that they can be released as a by-product in many industrial processes, such as heat treatment and machining.

We still know little about the harmful effects of nanoparticles. Available laboratory results indicate that due to their penetration capabilities, some nanomaterials can destroy the body’s cells by damaging the cell membrane, others can accumulate in internal organs and change internal processes. The consequences of these properties may be different, today it is still difficult to define them. All the more so any scientist or young innovator must exercise extreme caution when working with nanoparticles.

Close the danger in the box

How to handle nanoparticles to minimize their impact on humans? The output is effective separation of them – even with the help of closed systems, housings and shields of devices emitting nanoparticles of hazardous substances.

– One of the methods of isolation of nanoparticles from humans are specialized gloveboxes, designed for processes carried out in operator protection mode. They work not only when working with nanomaterials, but in all research and development, pharmaceutical and biochemical laboratories, as well as when working with microorganisms, pathogenic substances, radiochemical and carcinogenic chemicals – explains Paweł Boratyński, technology director of Hoger.

The secret of gloveboxes are high-efficiency HEPA filters and carbon traps as well as PLC automation that allows you to control the vacuum inside the chamber and dynamically adjust the fan speed to constantly changing conditions during operation. It is worth remembering that such a level of safety when working with nanomaterials is not guaranteed by protective masks, laminar chambers or fume cupboards.

How is it really with this security?

Do scientists and innovators realize the need for such protection? We do not know that. We hope, however, that the awareness of people working with nanoparticles raises, among others, campaigns such as the one currently run by the European Union and the Central Institute for Labor Protection PIB, ie “A healthy and safe workplace. Hazardous substances under control “. Which  Hoger brand also joined, by introducing gloveboxes to the market, for operator protection against dangerous substances in various industries.

Taking into account the increasing scale of the phenomenon, every effort must be made to ensure that the actions of employers and legislation – both domestic and EU – improve safety in the process of using nanomaterials, protecting people working in their environment. Only then will the nanotechnology ecosystem be able to become a flywheel of the Polish economy.

* Jarosław Piekarski, coordinator of the NMP area, member of the PL delegation to the H2020 NMBP Program Committee, presentation during InterNanoPoland 2018 Katowice

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