Closing the nanotube knowledge gap

While this technology will, arguably, reshape our future, we should also be fully aware of the possible downside.

A shipment of carbon powder for the manufacture of Multi-Wall Carbon Nanotubes (MWCNT) – microscopic cylindrical structures used in a host of electronic applications – is on its way by road train from Chicago to Los Angeles. The journey is monotonous, the truck driver dozes off momentarily and his vehicle careers off the highway and turns over. The containers being hauled rupture and clouds of fine grey dust are released into the atmosphere. A relatively harmless accident, or something with potentially serious consequences for the health of the inhabitants of nearby towns?

It’s just fiction, right. But what if such an incident actually occurred? The fact is we still know far too little about the potentially injurious effects of certain types of MWCNT in powder form. Some researchers liken their effects to that of asbestos, saying that if inhaled, they could set up lung diseases and other illnesses.

However, because of the rapid growth in the market for carbon nanotubes, it is perhaps tempting to play down their potential toxicity during manufacture, transportation and disposal.

How can the insurance industry best cope with this uncertainty? There are a number of pre-emptive risk mitigation strategies we believe individual insurance companies should adopt. These include generally raising clients’ awareness of the potential risks involved, examining the life cycle of CNTs and impacts on traditional lines of business and developing appropriate underwriting measures on a company-by-company basis.

Nanotechnology is becoming an indispensable part of tomorrow’s industrial landscape. It will enable the development of products which today are beyond our imagination. We should be aware that in its immense diversity and rapid development, it threatens to outstrip our ability to assess the attendant risks and close knowledge gaps.

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