Nanotechnologies – almost there – what’s next?

The Joint Research Centre’s Dr Elke Anklam spoke to SEQ about how the European Commission is supporting nanotechnologies.

In June, Innovation News Network travelled to Bucharest, Romania, to attend the 2019 instalment of the EuroNanoForum, a conference that brought together scientists, industrialists and policy makers to discuss cross-sectorial challenges focusing on both the industrial application of research results and future strategic research priorities in the area of nanotechnology and advanced materials in Horizon 2020 and beyond.

Amongst numerous high level speakers at the event, the Director of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) Geel site and Director of JRC Directorate F: Health, Consumers & Reference Material, Dr Elke Anklam, delivered an interesting presentation during a plenary session entitled ‘Almost there – what’s next?’, which was designed to promote the discussion of the status and achievements in nanotechnology and advanced materials areas during Horizon 2020, now in its pen-ultimate year.

Innovation News Network caught up with Anklam after the event to find out more about how the European Commission is supporting innovation in nanotechnologies, as well as about some of the ways in which nanotechnologies can benefit European society.

What do you feel must be done in Europe in order for industry to take proper advantage of nanotechnologies and novel materials in order to boost European society through job creation? How can nanotechnologies become a more strategic priority for Europe moving forwards?

Nanotechnology underpins a wide range of new products and technologies that have a huge potential to improve our daily lives, as well as creating jobs. Nanotechnology is also an important source of innovation worldwide and Europe is of course very active in this area. However, it is not without its challenges. The need for high tech instruments and facilities that require high-end interdisciplinary expertise can often impede the translation of innovations into real products and technologies.

The European Commission implements concrete actions to tackle this, including making research and technology infrastructures available to benefit research institutions and SMEs and help them bring their innovations to the market.

DG RTD tools such as Open Innovation Test Beds, Pilot Lines, the European Strategic Forum of Research Infrastructures Roadmaps (ESFRI), and research infrastructure projects are already in place to support innovation. The JRC offers access to more than 38 of its research infrastructures to external users, including the Nanobiotechnology Laboratory, which has state-of-the-art instrumentation to perform interdisciplinary studies aiming to characterise nanomaterials, micro/nanoplastics, nanomedicines, and advanced (bio)nanomaterials, enabling researchers to complete their studies using facilities that are not available in their institutions.

Besides giving access to infrastructures, the JRC co-ordinates the European Technology Transfer Offices Circle (TTO Circle), a network aiming to bring together major public research organisations to share best practices, knowledge, and expertise, perform joint activities, and develop a common approach towards international standards for the professionalisation of technology transfer. Such an initiative creates an interesting European ecosystem that favours the technology transfer from innovation towards the market.

To summarise, creating a sustainable innovation ecosystem including research infrastructures, technology transfer, as well as an active interface between research, policy, and regulators is necessary to be globally competitive in nanotechnologies. In addition, not only is it important to develop the regulatory landscape supporting the new technologies, but also to gain consumers’ confidence and acceptance to make the products a success, safe, and sustainable.

Europe’s chemical industry is now falling behind that found in China in terms of value and investment. How could/should this be addressed in Europe?

It is true that China is becoming the world leader in chemicals production. The Chinese demand for chemicals is growing very steadily and will continue to do so. We should not underestimate the competitiveness challenges for the European chemicals industry, for example when looking at key factors like energy prices, labour costs or the regulatory and tax burden. However, this is only one side of the story. European sales of chemicals have increased by more than 50% in 20 years. We are a very successful exporter of chemicals. Europe is internationally competitive in this sector, in particular thanks to very strong R&D and a skilled and talented workforce. The single market for chemicals has been a competitive asset for the chemicals industry in Europe. In the future, Europe’s position will depend on whether we manage to ensure a global level playing field for our companies as well as a regulatory and policy framework that is conducive to sustainable innovation. Europe’s ambition is to be a world leader in sustainability and the digital economy. This will open new avenues for industrial competitiveness. The chemicals industry is a key player in this transition. Europe can remain a world leader in sustainable chemicals if we fully embrace the opportunities offered by digitisation, decarbonisation and the circular economy. Achieving this ambition will require joint efforts from all actors, at all levels, including the industry itself.

At the EuroNanoForum, you said that “we need to make the most of the funding that is being made available through Horizon Europe”. How would you like to see this being achieved?

Sometimes when starting new fields there is a tendency to fragment and a sort of ‘re-invent the wheel’. In many cases, one can profit from lessons learned in other fields or from results from finalised projects. There are many ways to promote tangible output from Horizon Europe taking benefit from running or past framework programmes. For instance, data management infrastructures ensuring the availability and maintenance of the data, e.g. on the behaviour, physicochemical, fate and (eco)toxicological properties of nanomaterials, produced by projects, following the FAIR principles: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable.

There are already several H2020 projects implementing the harmonised logging of laboratory data or developing databases to store data related to nanomaterials analysis from different projects; part of this is freely accessible via the EU Observatory of Nanomaterials (EUON, hosted by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA)). More efforts could still be made to communicate project results and to translate them into practical applications. Knowledge also needs to be transferred to appropriate stakeholders (including the training of other scientists or regulators, and by involving more SMEs and by supporting spin-offs). It is also important to build future investigations on current, already achieved knowledge, and to share the results amongst scientists to avoid duplication of work.

A question from an audience member at the event argued that rather than investing in technologies for roll-out in Europe, we should look to emerging/developing nations and aid them in developing sustainably, not least due to the fact that many such nations are responsible for more emissions etc. than Europe. What are your thoughts on this?

This is indeed a very good point. The EU is interested in developing a technological leadership and deploying technologies. This is beneficial for the environment and wellbeing (health) of EU citizens, as well as for job creation and economic growth. Moreover, these technologies can also be deployed in emerging/developing nations. There is indeed a need to make these technologies available to those nations at a reasonable cost without the need to repeat the path that we travelled at high environmental cost.

Knowledge transfer, training, and international collaboration are very often key aspects of open-access to research infrastructure initiatives, showing that nanotechnologies for EU and their transfer (including training) to developing countries are not in competition, but rather two aspects of the same goal. In this respect, the JRC just launched a training and capacity building initiative in the nanotechnology area for research institutions and SMEs from H2020 associated countries. The goal is to provide a week of hands-on training on state-of-the-art techniques and instrumentation that would enable teams of researchers from one or several institutions from different associated countries to build new capacities and knowledge to favour their integration and collaboration within the EU scientific community.

Safety and regulations must remain a priority. How would you like to see these being addressed moving forwards, and what are your thoughts on the Malta Initiative?

The Malta Initiative (supported by DG RTD) is an excellent example of how a concerted action by the EU Member States and the Commission can stir and lead sustainable innovation by setting priorities, addressing regulatory needs, and collaborate with other major players at global level.

The adoption of a Safe Innovation Approach seems to be a reasonable way to maintain good safety standards while preserving innovative technologies. This includes the development and implementation of tools for Safe by Design as well as the opening of fora where regulators and industry can share information. This way, regulators can become aware in advance of upcoming (nano-)innovations and have the time to address potential issues beforehand and design appropriate regulations.


Dr Elke Anklam


Directorate F: Health, Consumers & Reference Material

Joint Research Centre (JRC)

European Commission

Tweet @ElkeAnklam

Tweet @EU_ScienceHub

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