Official Journal of the European Union

C 157/22

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission: Towards a European strategy for nanotechnology’

(COM(2004) 338 final)

(2005/C 157/03)

On 12 May 2004, the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the ‘Communication from the Commission: Towards a European strategy for nanotechnology’.

The Section for the Single Market, Production and Consumption, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 10 November 2004. The rapporteur was Mr Pezzini.

At its 413th plenary session of 15 December 2004, the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 151 votes and one abstention.

1.   Background


The Committee is conscious of the fact that this opinion deals with a partly new subject, whose vocabulary is little known or at any rate little used. For this reason, it was deemed useful to provide a brief series of definitions and to detail the state of nanotechnology research and applications in the United States and Asia.










2.   Definitions


Nano — means one billionth of a whole. In this case, nano is used to mean a billionth of a metre.


Micro — means one millionth of a whole. In this case, it means one millionth of a metre.


Nanosciences — The nanosciences are a new approach to traditional science (chemistry, physics, electronic biology, etc.) and deal with the basic structure and behaviour of materials at the level of atoms and molecules. These sciences in fact study the potential of atoms in the various scientific disciplines (1).


Nanotechnologies — These technologies enable atoms and molecules to be manipulated so as to create new surfaces and objects that, having a different make-up and arrangement of atoms, have properties that can be used in day-to-day life (2). These are technologies that deal with billionths of a metre.


In addition to the above definition, it is worthwhile going into greater detail from a scientific point of view. The term nanotechnology describes a multidisciplinary approach to the creation of materials, mechanisms and systems, by means of the nanometric scale control of materials.


Nanomechanics — The dimensions of an object begin to be important in determining its properties when the scale of its dimensions is of one or a few dozen nanometres (objects made of a few dozen or a few thousand atoms). Within this range of dimensions, an object composed of 100 iron atoms has physical and chemical properties that are radically different to one composed of 200 atoms, even if they are both made of the same atoms. Similarly, the mechanical and electromagnetic properties of a solid made up of nanoparticles are radically different to those of a traditional solid of the same chemical composition and are affected by the properties of the individual constituent units.


This is a fundamental scientific and technological novelty that changes the approach to making and manipulating materials in all fields of science and technology. Nanotechnology is not therefore a new science, joining the ranks of chemistry, physics and biology, but rather a new way of doing chemistry, physics and biology.


It follows that a nanostructured material or system is made of units of nanometric proportions (the structures made of individual atoms that we are used to are no longer relevant) and therefore possesses certain properties that can be built into complex structures. Clearly, therefore, production models based on the assembly of individual atoms or molecules that are all alike should be changed and replaced with approaches within which dimensions are a fundamental parameter.


To give an idea of the revolutionary impact of nanotechnology, it is equivalent to discovering a new periodic table of elements that is much bigger and more complicated than the previous one, and to finding that the limitations imposed by phase diagrams (for instance the possibilities of mixing two materials) can be overcome.


These are therefore bottom-up technologies, that shift the emphasis from individual functions to a set of functions. They have an ever-increasing number of applications, in the following fields to name but a few: health, information technology, materials science, manufacturing, energy, safety, aerospace, optics, acoustics, chemicals, food and the environment.


Thanks to these applications, some of which are already possible and used by the public (3), it is realistic to state that nanotechnologies could significantly improve quality of life, the competitiveness of the manufacturing industry and sustainable development  (4) .


Microelectronics — This is a branch of electronics that deals with the development of integrated circuits, built within individual semiconductor regions, with minute dimensions. Microelectronics can currently create individual components with dimensions in the realms of 0.1 micrometre, or 100 nanometres (5).


Nanoelectronics — This is a science that studies and produces circuits that are made using technologies and materials other than silicon and that work on a substantially different set of principles (6).


Nanoelectronics is set to become a cornerstone of nanotechnology, just as electronics today permeates all scientific sectors and industrial processes (7).


Development in the field of electric and electronic components has been very rapid. In the space of a few decades, valves have given way to semiconductors, chips, microchips and now nanochips, assembled using elements each made of a few 100 atoms. A nanochip can hold as much information as 25 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (8).


Scientists and electronic component producers quickly realised that the smaller the chip, the faster the flow of information (9). Nanoelectronics, therefore, enables information to be managed much more rapidly and contained in extremely small spaces.


Scanning tunnelling microscope — This instrument, which won its inventors the Nobel Prize, has also been defined as the ‘lens of the 21st century’. It is used to ‘see’ material on an atomic scale. To work, the tip of the microscope moves in parallel over a surface. A tunnel effect causes the surface electrons (not the atoms) to move from the surface to the tip. This creates a current, which intensifies as the distance between the surface and the tip decreases. This current is converted by means of an altitude calculation, and gives the nanometric scale topography of the surface of a material.


Tunnel effect — In traditional mechanics, a particle with a certain amount of energy cannot get out of a hole unless it has enough energy to jump out. In quantum mechanics however, owing to the uncertainty principle, the situation is very different. As the particle is confined to the hole, the degree of uncertainty as to its position is small, and as a result, uncertainty as to its speed is great. Therefore, the particle has a certain probability of having sufficient energy to escape from the hole, despite the fact that its average energy would not be sufficient (10).


Carbon nanotubes — These are the product of a particular way of assembling carbon atoms. They are among the most resistant and lightest materials currently known. They are six times lighter and one hundred times stronger than steel. They have a diameter of a few nanometres and can be several microns long. (11)


Self-assembly of macromolecules — This is the procedure used in laboratories to imitate nature: ‘every living thing is self-assembled’. The self-assembly procedure creates interfaces between electronic circuits and biological tissues and makes a connection between informatics and biology. The goal, which scientists believe is not so far off, is to give hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind (12).


Biomimetics  (13) This is the science that studies the laws underpinning molecular structures existing in nature. Knowledge of these laws could enable artificial nanomotors to be created, based on the same principles as those existing in nature (14).

3.   Introduction


The EESC appreciates the clarity with which the nanotechnology communication has been drafted and shares the Commission's desire to waste no time in making a valid contribution to the debate. It also welcomes the many texts that have been published, including the CD ROMs, aimed at both experts and young people.


The educational CD ROMs in particular are extremely useful cultural vehicles for disseminating the necessary information on nanotechnology to a vast, sometimes uninformed, often young public.


The EESC takes the view that information on this subject, which may spawn new and fruitful discoveries in many areas of everyday life, should be disseminated using the most universally accessible vocabulary. Furthermore, research on new products must be geared to consumers' needs and demands, never losing sight of sustainable development.


Journalists and mass media operators, particularly from the specialised press, have a special role to play, as they are the first to spread news of success stories as researchers challenge science to obtain real results.


Current progress indicators for nanotechnology focus on four main strands: 1) publications (15); 2) patents; 3) new business start-ups; 4) turnover. The EU is in the lead on publications, with a percentage of 33 %, followed by the USA with 28 %. There are no precise figures for China, but publications are seemingly on the increase there. The USA is in first place on patents, with 42 %, followed by the EU with 36 %. As far as company start-ups are concerned, of every 1,000 genuine nanotech firms, 600 start life in the USA and 250 in the Euro- pean Union. Taken as a whole, data on turnover suggest an increase from the current EUR 50 billion to approximately EUR 350 billion in 2010, reaching EUR 1,000 billion in 2015 (16).


Not only do nanotechnology and nanoscience constitute a new approach to materials science and engineering, they are, above all, among the most promising and important multidisciplinary tools for coming up with production systems, highly innovative inventions and far-reaching applications, for the various sectors of society.


On nanometric scale, conventional materials acquire different properties to their macroscopic counterparts, thus enabling the creation of systems that work and perform better. The radical novelty of nanotechnology lies in the fact that by reducing the scale of a material, its physical and chemical properties are changed. This makes it possible to achieve production strategies similar to the approach used by nature to make complex systems, with a rational use of energy, minimising the raw material needed and waste products  (17).


The production processes associated with nanotechnology should therefore be marked by a new approach, taking full account of these new properties, in order to ensure that the European economic and social system draws the maximum benefit.


The nanotechnological approach pervades every production sector. The sectors currently applying nanotechnology to certain productive processes are: electronics (18); chemistry (19); pharmaceuticals (20); mechanics (21); and the automotive, aerospace (22), manufacturing (23) and cosmetics sectors.


Nanotechnologies could go a long way towards helping the EU to achieve the objectives set by the Lisbon European Council, by developing the knowledge-based society, and to become the most dynamic and competitive force in the world, while protecting the environment, promoting cohesion, and generating new businesses, more skilled jobs and new professional and training profiles.


According to the Commission, Europe could enjoy pole position in the field of nanotechnologies, but it must first succeed in clinching a real competitive advantage for European industry and society and secure sufficient returns on the necessarily high investment in research.


The real issue is the need to understand the strategic importance of these technologies, which concern broad sectors of the economy and society. Properly joined-up policy is also essential in the field of nanotechnologies and nanosciences and must be given substantial resources and be certain of the support of the private, industrial, financial and training sectors.

4.   Gist of the Commission proposal


The Commission's communication seeks to launch an institutional-level debate on a coherent initiative to:

increase investment and coordination of R&D to reinforce the industrial exploitation of nanotechnologies whilst maintaining scientific excellence and competition;

develop world-class competitive R&D facilities (‘poles of excellence’) that take into account the needs of both industry and research organisations;

promote the interdisciplinary education and training of research personnel, together with a stronger entrepreneurial mindset;

ensure favourable conditions for technology transfer and innovation to ensure that European R&D excellence is translated into wealth-generating products and processes;

integrate societal considerations into the R&D process at an early stage;

address any potential public health, safety, environmental and consumer risks upfront by generating the data needed for risk assessment, integrating risk assessment into every step of the life cycle of nanotechnology-based products, and adapting existing methodologies and, as necessary, developing novel ones;

complement the above actions with appropriate cooperation and initiatives at international level.


More specifically, the Commission proposes the following:

the establishment of a European Research Area for nanotechnology;

the development of basic and applied research facilities and high-quality university facilities open to companies, SMEs in particular;

heavy investment in human resources, at EU/Member State level;

support for industrial innovation, patenting, metrology and standardisation systems, regulation, and protection of safety, public health, the environment, consumers and investors to secure responsible development;

the consolidation of a science/society dialogue, based on trust and an ongoing open dialogue;

maintaining and stepping up strong and structured international cooperation, with common nomenclatures and codes of conduct, and a concerted effort to avoid exclusion from nanotech development;

Community-level coordination of strategy and joint policy measures, backed up by adequate financial and human resources.

5.   Main developments in the USA, Asia and Oceania


In the USA, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a basic and applied research programme launched in 2001, coordinates the activity of a number of American agencies working in the field. It received funding of over a billion dollars for the 2005 financial year, doubling its initial 2001 budget. The main targets for this funding are: basic and applied research, the development of centres of excellence and facilities, and the evaluation and verification of the implications for society, particularly from an ethical, legal and public health and safety point of view, in addition to the development of human resources.


The NNI directly finances 10 federal agencies and coordinates various others. The National Science Foundation (NSF), the Office of Basic Energy Sciences of the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Defense (DoD), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have all seen significant increases in their budgets, aimed specifically at nanotechnology. The DOE in particular has invested massive sums and has managed to set up five major facilities, i.e. nanoscale science research centres, open to researchers from the entire scientific community. The DoD's nanotechnology programme meanwhile has grown over the years as a result for instance of the services required by the US armed forces.


These major developments were made possible by the passing in December 2003 of basic legislation on American nanotechnology policy with the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. Among other things, this law established a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, with the following tasks:

to redefine evaluation objectives, priorities and parameters;

to coordinate the agencies and other federal activities;

to invest in R&D programmes in nanotechnology and related sciences;

to set up, on a competitive basis, interdisciplinary nanotechnology research centres, in various geographical locations, without ruling out State and industrial sector participation;

to step up the development of applications in the private sector, including company start-up activities;

to provide for education and certified training, generating and consolidating a technological and engineering culture in the nanosciences;

to ensure that the ethical, legal and environmental aspects are respected in nanotechnology development and to organise consensus conferences and debates with the public and civil society;

to promote the pooling of information between academia and industry, the State, central government and regional governments;

to develop a plan to use the federal programmes, such as the Small Business Innovation Research Program and the Small Business Technology Transfer Research Program, to sustain an all-pervasive spread of nanotechnological development throughout the business fabric, however small the companies involved.


To reinforce the above legislation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has launched a specific programme to develop manufacturing in the nanotechnology sector, centring on: metrology, reliability and qualitative standards, process control, and manufacturing best practice. The Manufacturing Extension Partnership will also enable the results of the programme to be disseminated to SMEs.


The above law also provides for the establishment of an information clearing-house, with the task of:

managing the commercialisation of nanotechnology and the transfer of technologies and new concepts into commercial and military products;

demonstrating the best practice of universities and government and private sector laboratories, with a view to transfer to commercial use.


There are also plans for an American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center, with the task of conducting, coordinating, collecting, and disseminating studies on the ethical, legal, educational, environmental and workforce implications of nanotechnology and anticipating any problems so as to prevent potential negative fall-out.


The organisational framework set up by law is made complete by the establishment of a Center for Nanomaterials Manufacturing, to encourage, conduct and coordinate research into new manufacturing technologies and to collect and disseminate the results, in order to facilitate their transfer to United States industries.


The law also provides for the relevant 2005-2008 financial appropriations for the main agencies and federal departments, such as NSF, DOE, NASA and NIST (24).


After the announcement of the American NNI, there were significant changes in scientific research and technological development policy in Asia and the Pacific, with decisions designed to enable the region to take up a strong position in nanotechnology development. Nanotechnology became top priority in a number of Asian and Pacific countries, with overall spending in 2003 of over USD 1.4 billion. Of that figure, 70 % refers to Japan, but major investments were also made in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, not to mention Australia and New Zealand.


Japan has launched a number of five- to ten-year programmes in the field of nanoscience and nanotechnology since the mid-1980s. In 2003, the budget for the R&D programme for nanotechnology and materials stood at USD 900 million, but nanotechnology-related themes are also present in life science, environment and information society programmes. This brings the total budget earmarked for the sector in 2003 to nearly USD 1.5 billion, with an increase of approximately 20 % in 2004. The Japanese private sector is also very much present, represented by two major trading houses, Mitsui & Co and the Mitsubishi Corporation. Most of the major Japanese companies, such as NEC, Hitachi, Fujitsu, NTT, Toshiba, Sony, Sumitomo Electric, Fuji Xerox, etc. have invested heavily in nanotechnology.


Under its current five-year plan for 2001 to 2005, China has set aside a budget of approximately USD 300 million for nanotechnology. According to the Chinese minister for science and technology, about 50 universities, 20 institutes and over 100 companies are active in the sector. To secure an adequate platform for commercialising nanotechnology, an engineering centre and a nanotech industry base have been set up between Beijing and Shanghai. Furthermore, the Chinese government has set aside USD 33 million for the establishment of a national research centre on nanoscience and technology, in order to better coordinate scientific and research efforts in the sector.


In 2002, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) founded Casnec (the CAS Nanotechnology Engineering Centre), with an overall budget of USD 6 million, as a platform to accelerate the commercialisation of nanoscience and nanotechnology. In Hong Kong, the two main sources of nanotech financing are the Grant Research Council and the Innovation and Technology Fund, spending an overall budget of USD 20.6 million in the period from 1998 to 2002. For 2003 and 2004, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University have granted their own nanotech centres nearly USD 9 million.


In Australia and New Zealand meanwhile, the Australia Research Council (ARC) has doubled its funding for competitive projects over the last five years, and has plans to set up eight centres of excellence in various locations, with a view to more in-depth research into themes such as quantum computer technology, quantum atom optics, photovoltaics, advanced photonics and advanced optics systems.


In New Zealand, the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology is the national coordinator for advanced research and training in materials science and nanotechnology, working on the basis of close cooperation between universities and various partners, including Industry Research Ltd (IRL) and the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (IGNS).


The MacDiarmid Institute is focusing on the following sectors in particular: nanoengineered materials, optoelectronics (25), superconductors, carbon nanotubes, light materials and complex fluids, sensorial and image systems, and lastly, new energy-storing materials.

6.   General comments


The explosion of nanotechnologies around the world, in America, Asia and Oceania alike, is proof that it is high time that Europe took systematic and coordinated action to secure joint Community and national financing for basic and applied research and its speedy transfer to new products, processes and services.


A joint European strategy should be based on:

boosting joint efforts in the field of scientific and technological research, demonstration and training, as part of the establishment of the European Innovation and Research Area;

maximising interplay between industry and academia (research, education and advanced training);

speeding up the development of industrial and multi-sectoral applications, and of the economic, social, legal, regulatory, fiscal and financial context to accommodate the work of innovative new businesses and professional profiles;

safeguarding ethical, environmental, health and safety interests throughout the lifecycle of scientific applications; promoting the relationship with civil society and regulation of metrological and technical standardisation matters;

stepping up the European coordination of policies, measures, structures and networks, so that they are able to maintain and improve on current competitive levels of scientific, technological and applications development;

immediately involving the new Member States in the process of studying and applying nanoscience, by means of targeted measures, using the financial appropriations provided by the ERDF and the ESF (26) and joint programmes, managed with existing accredited EU research centres (27).


The achievement of a large critical mass and high value added should pave the way for the establishment and development of a joint strategy. Manufacturing and service companies, small ones in particular, should be able to use the results of such a strategy for their innovative and competitive development while also contributing by spawning trans-European networks of excellence together with universities, public and private research centres and financial bodies.


The development of this strategy must be firmly anchored in that of society. This means that the strategy must be firmly warranted by the major contribution it can make not only to the competitiveness of the European knowledge-based economy but also and above all to the health, environment, safety and quality of life of the European public. This also means working on the demand side of nanotechnologies, to solve the problems faced by the public, businesses and organisations, as these are the areas most in need of practical responses.


The commitment of society as a whole must be secured. This will require transparency and safety in the nanotechnological process, from basic research all the way to the application of results and their demonstration and development in innovative market products and services. It will also require agreements that are clear and comprehensible for the general public, providing an assurance that the entire life cycle of the products, including disposal, is subject to checks and constant risk assessment.


A positive relationship must be forged between science and society in this sector in order to avoid the emergence of barriers to or stagnation in nanotechnology development, in contrast to what happened during the growth of other new technologies recently.


The creation of European facilities and of new multidisciplinary scientific and academic profiles is also essential. This too will mean winning the full trust of the tax-payer and of policy-makers, who need to be fully aware of the positive potential of the nanotechnological revolution.


The development of nanotechnologies is therefore not only a major challenge intellectually and scientifically, but also and above all a challenge for society as a whole. Phenomena for which the scientific principles are known at macro level are being altered, increased, reduced or eliminated at nano level, with consequences that may have an — at times radical — impact on applications. New manufacturing techniques, new approaches, different types of service and new professions to manage them are developing.


This rapid transformation demands a strategy for the creation and/or reskilling of senior managers to manage the transition, set up a new form of governance for the process, generate new professional profiles and attract the best brains, at world level.


The Community's financial perspectives for 2007-2013, as recently proposed by the Commission, should be assessed and remoulded in the light of the challenges posed by this new technological revolution. Suffice it to say that the American Congress has approved a nanotechnology budget of over EUR 700 million for the 2004 fiscal year alone. According to the estimates of the US National Science Foundation (NSF), civil investment in the sector by various governmental organisations around the world in 2003 exceeded EUR 2,300 million, broken down as follows:

approximately EUR 700 million in the USA (added to which a further EUR 250 million managed by the Defense Department, DoD);

EUR 720 million in Japan;

less than EUR 600 million in Europe, including Switzerland;

approximately EUR 720 million in the rest of the world.


As far as the future is concerned, the growth of world industrial output in the sector has been estimated at around EUR 1,000 billion over 10 to 15 years, calling for over two million skilled people to join the sector's workforce.


This confirms the principle that nanotechnology = progress for the employment strategy (28). The development of the knowledge-based society will be measured against its capacity to tap sensitively and intelligently into the new sources of employment and progress.


For the EU's strategy in this area to be certain of success, therefore, it is essential to build up financial and human resources and coordination at Community level.


In both Asia and the USA, a joined-up approach to the various policies directly or indirectly concerning the sector's development has proved indispensable, in order to be proactive vis à vis the need for new entrepreneurship, new training, and a new regulatory and technical-legal framework.


As has been shown by the many studies already carried out (29), nanotechnology enables the production, manipulation and positioning of objects, while also securing a proactive technological approach on a large scale at competitive processing and production costs.


In the long term, science will be able to provide instruments to assemble nano-objects, so that they can form complex systems able to carry out functions that the individual parts cannot. The time-to-market of this ultimate goal is as yet difficult to estimate, but it must be pursued with the appropriate support instruments.


Various ‘intelligent’ materials (30) have been made and are already available to consumers:

highly durable materials for the automotive and aerospace sectors;

high-performance lubricants;

friction-reducing nanoparticles;

the surface processing of mechanical parts;

extremely small Intelligent Sticks, with memory capacity of 1,000 MB (31);

flexible CDs that can hold over 20 hours of music;

self-cleaning fabric, ceramic and glass surfaces (32);

glass with electrically-adjustable transparency;

heat-proof glass that can withstand extremely high temperatures;

scratch- and corrosion-resistant nanostructured sheet metal;

diagnostic systems;

special paints to protect walls and buildings;

graffiti-proof paint for walls, train carriages and other objects.


Many new applications, in addition to those described above, are already in use or are at the fine-tuning stage and will very soon be part of everyday life. They point to progress or even a revolution in ‘domotics’ (33) and will contribute to improving the public's quality of life.


Thanks to biomimetics, the study of the possibility of interfacing electronic circuits with biological tissues, in the near future it will be possible to restore hearing to hearing-impaired and sight to sight-impaired organisms.


Various types of micromotor (34) are already at the laboratory stage. They are able to reach a predetermined target, such as an infected cell, and destroy it in order to prevent it from contaminating other cells. Currently however, the action taken on unhealthy cells also affects healthy cells, often causing considerable damage to organs.


Scientific applications of the technique are already able to supply a number of practical results that are directly applicable to daily life. Unfortunately, the costs are still too high however. In order for them to become affordable, awareness of these new possibilities must become common knowledge, in order to alter deep-rooted procedures and habits that more often than not obstruct and delay change.


The traditional textiles/clothing/footwear sector has been in crisis throughout the European Union not least because of competition from products from countries that do not uphold basic labour standards or take into consideration the cost of environmental protection or of health and safety in the workplace.


Intelligent and/or technical fabrics, including those designed with the help of nano powders, are on the increase in many European countries and showing growth of around 30 % a year. Particularly important are fabrics designed to enhance all aspects of safety: from road safety to protection from pollution, chemical agents, allergenic products and atmospheric agents, etc. (35).


Nanotechnology is also revolutionising medicine, especially regarding the early diagnosis and treatment of serious tumours and neurodegenerative diseases associated with old age. Specifically designed nanoparticles can be used as markers for the highly effective diagnosis of infectious agents or metabolite properties, or as vectors for drugs to be deposited in certain areas or organs affected by highly localised diseases. Systems of this kind are already being used in various experiments.

7.   Specific comments


The nanotechnological approach to new materials means creating new functions by using nanoscale components. A good example is that of technologies for the production and processing of durable and efficient materials for the automotive and aeronautics sectors, areas in which Europe has the edge over its main competitors. It has been clearly demonstrated that nanostructured systems can significantly reduce friction between two connecting surfaces, and thus reduce wear and tear.


Just one of many examples of nanotechnology's various commercial applications is that of the development of nanostructured materials and surfaces to reduce friction and wear and tear. These systems play a key role in the development of new, highly efficient industrial processes with a low environmental impact. Approximately 25 % of the energy used in the world is lost through friction (36), and losses owing to mechanical parts becoming worn out are estimated at between 1.3 % and 1.6 % of an industrialised country's GDP. The costs associated with problems of friction, wear and tear and lubrication can be estimated at approximately EUR 350 billion a year, broken down between the following sectors: land transport (46.6 %), industrial processes (33 %), energy supply (6.8 %), aeronautics (2.8 %), domestic consumption (0.5 %), other (10.3 %) (37).


New technological platforms must therefore be created on the basis of approaches that take into account the peculiarities of nanotechnologies and, in particular, the fact that functions and dimensions coincide, i.e. control over dimensions coincides with control over functions. For instance, in the case of lubrication: if nanometric particles of the right dimensions are built into a surface, there is no longer any need to lubricate, as that function is carried out by the nanoparticles, by means of their dimensions.


Nanostructured materials and coatings, whose ingredients are of nanometric dimensions, can significantly reduce the above percentages. For instance, a decrease of 20 % in the friction coefficient in a car's gearbox could reduce energy losses by a percentage varying between 0.64 % and 0.80 %, yielding savings of EUR 26 billion a year in the transport sector alone.


Surface testing and engineering is a key technology in terms of sustainable growth. A report from the UK's Department of Trade and Industry describes the state of the surface engineering industry in the 1995-2005 period and in 2010 (38). The report shows that in 1995, the English market for surface modification processes totalled approximately EUR 15 billion, and involved the production of goods for a value of around EUR 150 billion, of which EUR 7 billion was linked to the development of technologies for the protection of surfaces from wear and tear. The prediction for 2005 is that in the UK this sector will be worth approximately EUR 32 billion, involving industrial processes valued at around EUR 215 billion.


Projecting these figures on to the European market gives EUR 240 billion for surface processing, and spin-offs to other production sectors of approximately EUR 1,600 billion.


In order to benefit from nanotechnology (39), industrial development must be based on the capacity to marry traditional manufacturing processes and technologies (top-down) with innovative processes able to create, manipulate and integrate the new nanometric ingredients, using existing or new platforms.


An approach based on governance is of fundamental importance. In addition to general initiatives taken with consumers in mind, others must be developed and aimed at industry associations, local administrators and non-profit organisations, so as to tie in the warp and weft of the economic, political and social fabric. Competence centres could play an important role here (40), laying the foundations for greater coordination of local and European initiatives and generating a climate that is conducive to nanotechnological innovation. In this context, action must be taken to assess the impact of nanotechnologies on health and the environment, and any EU (top-down) initiatives should dovetail with action determined and promoted locally (bottom-up).


The EESC wishes to stress the great potential of developing nanoscience and nanotechnology as part of the application of the Lisbon Strategy. Uniting the scientific disciplines around an approach based on nanoscale units of matter will lay new foundations for the integration of knowledge, innovation, technology and development.


Coordination is still rather fragmented at European level despite efforts made under the sixth framework programme. The focus appears to be on rationalising the use of resources. While there is strong backing for basic research and also for the development of new industrial processes, there is as yet a lack of direction and backing for initiatives to generate real progress in mass production technologies. Support for efforts to develop European governance in the area is more embryonic still.


In the Member States, genuine coordination is essential but it has thus far been absent, especially when it comes to applying research. In many European countries, businesses, SMEs especially, are encountering the following difficulties:

a lack of basic knowledge of nanoscience and nanotechnology,

a lack of professionals able to relate to companies' needs,

an incapacity to assess the impact of the new technologies in terms of technological and market processes,

difficulties in locating and assessing nanostructured raw materials,

the inability to insert nanotech processes into traditional production processes,

difficulties in assessing the development of the market for nano products,

inadequate links with universities and innovation centres.


The EESC believes it is very important to use research to design useful systems in the field of public health and everyday life, always adhering to the principle of mimesis, i.e. imitating nature.


The EESC welcomes the birth of the ‘Nanoforum’ network (41) and hopes that the network's publications will be translated and disseminated in all the Member States. As far as possible, the language used in the publications must be simple and accessible to a wide audience. Universities and research centres should be able to use the forum's findings.


The EESC is also convinced that the ‘European nanoelectronics technology platform’, suggested by the high level group (42), will be all the more successful providing it can avoid unnecessary and costly overlaps in research, working in close cooperation with the Commission.


It is also the EESC's opinion that by 2008 investment in these sectors in the EU will have to rise from the current EUR 3 billion a year, to EUR 8 billion, with periodical checks by the Commission on the following aspects:

increase in market quotas,

public and private investment in research,

increase in the number of students studying nanotechnology.

8.   Conclusions


The EESC fully agrees with the conclusions of the Competitiveness Council of 24 September 2004 on the important role and potential of nanoscience and nanotechnology. The results achieved to date suggest that it is important to sharpen up the expertise and build the instruments that enable atoms to be worked on, in order to produce new structures and modify the properties of existing ones.


In this respect, the EESC recommends the immediate launch of a joint, integrated, responsible, European-level strategy, to focus in particular on: the development of joint efforts in RTD and scientific and technological demonstration and training; interaction between industry and the academic world; the accelerated development of industrial and multisectoral applications; and greater European coordination of policies, measures, structures and networks. As part of this strategy, a special effort must be made from the outset at international level too, to safeguard ethical, environmental, health and safety interests throughout the lifecycle of scientific applications and to promote appropriate technical standardisation.


The EESC would emphasise the need for this strategy to be firmly anchored in the development of society, making a positive contribution not only to the competitiveness of the European economy but also, and above all, to human health, the environment and safety, not to mention quality of life.


On this note, the EESC would stress the importance of securing the responsible and sustainable development of nanotechnology, from the outset, in order to meet the justifiable expectations of civil society with regard to environmental, health, ethical, industrial and economic aspects.


The EESC recommends a substantial increase in the resources earmarked for basic research, as technological and industrial excellence is always based on scientific excellence.


The 3 %  (43) objective decided at Barcelona should be implemented, making a priority of concentrating resources in the field of nanoscience, the development of its applications, and the convergence between nano-, bio- and info- technology and knowledge-based technology.


The Community's financial perspectives for 2007-2013, recently published by the Commission, should be assessed and remoulded in the light of the challenges posed by this new nanotechnology revolution.


The increase in funds hoped for must be reflected in an appropriate financial provision under the forthcoming seventh framework programme. The figures should reflect those earmarked in other countries, such as the USA.


The EESC is convinced that Europe should launch a high-level action plan with a definite road map and timetable and a joined-up approach, securing the necessary consensus among all civil society players on a shared vision. This vision must be translated into clear and transparent objectives for responding to the requirements of economic and social progress, and improved quality of life, safety and health for all.


In the Committee's opinion, there is a need to establish technological platforms with a large critical mass and high European value added, bringing together public and private players from the worlds of science, finance and administration who are active in the various specific fields of application.


The Committee would reiterate the urgent need to set up high-level European facilities and to strengthen the competence centres (CCs). Their location and specialisation would be determined on the basis of close coordination between European and local bodies, so as to pinpoint homogeneous industrial areas for local product specialisation, where a critical mass of R&D may already have taken root.


The CCs should be able to carry out and transfer high-quality research aimed at application and innovation, using nanotechnology, particularly in fields such as nanoelectronics, nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine.


Researchers must be certain that their intellectual property is protected, particularly in such a sensitive field. The EESC believes that solving the patenting issue in a clear and satisfactory way is a top priority if the success of applied research in the field of nanotechnology is to be secured. No time must be wasted in establishing a European-level Nano-IPR helpdesk, to meet the needs of researchers, companies and research centres.


The Commission, in conjunction with the Member States, must step up its efforts and promote in-depth studies in universities and research centres, to ensure that the patenting process appears feasible, with straightforward and inexpensive procedures, particularly in such an innovative sector.


As far as international cooperation is concerned, work on safety and the standardisation of measures and processes should be stepped up in conjunction with non-EU countries. Special attention should be given to China, which is investing heavily in the field of nanotechnologies. The USA and Japan, meanwhile, have a very aggressive policy in this area (cf. the agreement between China and the State of California on the development of centres of excellence for biomedical nanotechnologies).


The EESC believes that an additional effort must be made, not least through the European initiative for growth launched in December 2003, to increase the number of nanotech companies in the EU. To this end, the relationship between universities, nanotechnological innovation centres and companies must be constantly promoted and improved.


Measures are needed to target the development of nanotechnology-based industrial processes (from nanotechnology to nanomanufacturing), for companies both large and small. Europe should follow the American example of developing a plan to use federal programmes such as the Small Business Innovation Research Program and the Small Business Technology Transfer Research Program, in order to sustain an all-pervasive spread of nanotechnological development throughout the business fabric, however small the companies involved.


Industry associations can play an important part here both nationally and locally. The Research and Enterprise DGs could jointly promote a number of intensive awareness-raising campaigns, involving all the economic and social players, on the basis of the positive experience developed in Trieste (44).


In the EESC's view, the establishment of a European information clearing-house (45) would be a very important mechanism to facilitate:

the commercialisation of nanotechnology and the transfer of technologies and new concepts into commercial and military products,

the dissemination of the best practice of universities and public and private laboratories, with a view to transfer into commercial use.


Alongside and in connection with the European forums, there should be a number of worldwide forums, open to UN countries, and able to deal with issues relating to:


ethical rules,

social consensus,

environmental aspects,

sustainable development,

consumer safety.


The European Investment Bank (EIB), possibly with the practical support of the European Investment Fund (EIF), should set up credit facilities, to be managed in conjunction with credit institutions, regional financing bodies specialised in company loans, venture capital companies and guarantee cooperatives, in order to facilitate the birth and growth of companies that are centring their production on nanotech products.


The Growth and Environment Programme was a positive experience that yielded excellent results in the past (though mainly in the environmental sector). It could be imitated, in order to encourage growth in new types of nanotechnology-based production (46).


Research and its spin-offs for products should be geared towards the requirements of the public and sustainable development. In this context, action must be taken to assess the impact of nanotechnologies on health and the environment, and any EU (top-down) initiatives should dovetail with action determined and promoted locally (bottom-up).


There must be an ongoing and scientifically well-founded dialogue with the public. The new technologies that are growing out of the use of atoms must be transparent and provide the public with an assurance that there are no hidden dangers for health or the environment. History has taught us that, very often, fear and concern regarding new products are born more out of ignorance than reality.


This is one of the reasons why the EESC hopes that there will be an unceasing and direct connection between research results and universally-recognised ethical principles, for which an international dialogue will be necessary.


As the technology forums (47) are in their formative stage, special attention must be given to the new members of the European Union, ensuring they are fully represented and that they have a direct link with the European centres of excellence.


The EESC believes that the coordination of research in the vast field of nanoscience should be the responsibility of the Commission — albeit with basic research activity being the responsibility of the future European Research Council ESR. The Commission, in agreement with the Parliament and the Council, can secure the best possible added value for the European public including a wider and more far-reaching and objective use of research results.


The EESC asks the Commission to provide it with a biennial report on nanotechnological development, in order to check the progress of the action plan adopted and to suggest possible changes and updates.

Brussels, 15 December 2004.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND

(1)  Interview with Commissioner Busquin (summary in IP/04/820 of 29 June 2004).

(2)  See footnote 1.

(3)  See point 6.15 of the conclusions.

(4)  See footnote 1.

(5)  Micro and nanoelectronics centre at the Politecnico di Milano, Prof. Alessandro Spinelli.

(6)  Ibidem.

(7)  Investment in nanoelectronics currently totals EUR 6 billion, broken down as follows: 1/3 in nano and micro, 1/3 in diagnostics, 1/3 in materials (source: European Commission, Research DG).

(8)  Source: European Commission, Research DG - 2003

(9)  See point 3.3.1.

(10)  Tullio Regge: ‘Il vuoto dei fisici’, L'Astronomia, No. 18 September-October 1982.

(11)  Source: European Commission, Research DG 2003

(12)  Various experiments are at an advanced stage, and an interface ‘dialogue’ has already been established between a snail neuron and an electronic chip.

(13)  From the Greek mimesis, to imitate nature.

(14)  For instance the independent movement of spermatozoa.

(15)  These are quantitative rather than qualitative data. A more in-depth assessment would be useful, such as that referred to by the UK's Royal Society.

(16)  Source: European Commission, Research DG

(17)  Source: University of Milan, Physics Department, Interdisciplinary centre for nanostructured materials and interfaces.

(18)  See Technology Roadmap for Nanoelectronics, European Commission, IST Programme, Future and emerging technologies, Second edition, 2000.

(19)  Nanostructured additives for polymers, paints and lubricants.

(20)  Nanostructured vectors for active ingredients, diagnostic systems

(21)  Surface treatments for mechanical parts, to improve durability and performance.

(22)  Pneumatics, structural materials, control and monitoring systems

(23)  Technical and intelligent materials.

(24)  The multi-annual financial appropriations set out by the law of 3 December 2003 break down as follows:


National Science Foundation


USD 385,000,000 for 2005


USD 424,000,000 for 2006


USD 449,000,000 for 2007


USD 476,000,000 for 2008


Department of Energy


USD 317,000,000 the fiscal year 2005


USD 347,000,000 the fiscal year 2006


USD 380,000,000 the fiscal year 2007


USD 415,000,000 the fiscal year 2008


National Aeronautics and Space Administration


USD 34,100,000 for 2005


USD 37,500,000 for 2006


USD 40,000,000 for 2007


USD 42,300,000 for 2008


National Institute of Standards and Technology


USD 68,200,000 for 2005


USD 75,000,000 for 2006


USD 80,000,000 for 2007


USD 84,000,000 for 2008


Environmental Protection Agency


USD 5,500,000 the fiscal year 2005


USD 6,050,000 the fiscal year 2006


USD 6,413,000 the fiscal year 2007


USD 6,800,000 the fiscal year 2008

(25)  Optoelectronics is a technique that combines the disciplines of optics and electronics. It studies mechanisms that convert electrical signals into optical signals and vice versa (CD players, laser systems, etc.).

(26)  ERDF, European Regional Development Fund: one of the Structural Funds that, under Priority IV (local development systems), can be used to finance research facilities and equipment.

ESF, European Social Fund, another Structural Fund that, under Priority III (human resources), can be used to finance training for researchers and information for entrepreneurs.

(27)  The CD ROMs and recent publications of the Research DG provide a broad panorama of European research centres and their specialisations. For more information see:


(28)  See the Luxembourg (1997), Cardiff (1998), Cologne (1999) and Lisbon (2000) processes, on the use of development to increase and improve employment.

(29)  European Commission, Research DG

(30)  These are nanostructured surfaces that have different properties to traditional surfaces.

(31)  These are extremely useful instruments that can store an enormous quantity of data, photographs and music.

(32)  The way the surfaces are structured and enriched with certain types of atoms prevents dirt and dust from coming into direct contact with the fabric, ceramic or glass.

(33)  From the Latin domus (house), domotics is the science that studies all aspects of development in the home.

(34)  The University of Grenoble has already run experiments on a number of types of micromotor, based on kinesin.

(35)  See Opinion CESE 967/2004 (OJ C 302, 7.12.2004) and studies conducted by the Universities of Ghent and Bergamo (textiles sector).

(36)  Source: Oakridge National Laboratory, USA.

(37)  Ibidem.

(38)  A. Matthews, R. Artley and P. Holiday, 2005 Revisited: The UK Surface Engineering Industry to 2010, NASURF, Dera, 1998.

(39)  NB: There is no such thing as the industrial development of nanotechnology, but rather development that benefits from nanotechnology.

(40)  Cf. the experience of Servitec, the Dalmine ‘innovation pole’ in Bergamo.

(41)  The Nanoforum network's members are: the Institute of Nanotechnology (UK), which is acting as coordinator; UDI Technologiezentrum (DE); CEA-LETI (FR); CMP Científica (ES); Nordic Nanotech (DK); and Malsch Techno Valutation (NL).


(42)  See previous footnote: ‘Vision 2020’ report, published on 29 June 2004.

(43)  3 % of European gross domestic product should be spent on research and development by the public sector (the Member States and the Community) and industry.

(44)  Nanoforum in Trieste, in 2003, attended by over 1,000 people.

(45)  See: American nanotechnology legislation of December 2003.

(46)  The Growth and Environment Programme, managed by the EIF in conjunction with various European financial institutions, helped to improve the environmental credentials of micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises, by means of co-financing and credit facilities.

(47)  See point 6.3.