Including safety and sustainability into the early design phases of new advanced materials


Including safety and sustainability into the early design phases of new advanced materials

Wed, 08/02/2023 - 13:30 to 14:30


Vicki Stone
Heriot Watt

New materials with exciting properties are being designed for inclusion in everyday products, from medical devices and food packaging, to mobile phones, solar panels and even clothing. The diversity of potential compositions for such materials are wide. While their inventors aspire to improve our health, enhance energy production, track food product supply chains or allow us to interact flexibly with our clothing, often little thought is given to the safety or sustainability of such materials until late in their design stages. If the material is not sufficiently safe or sustainable then the product will not be viable. It is common to leave such considerations to the later stages of development (or technology readiness levels), but can more be done to support decision making at an early innovation stage? Such an approach might reduce expense and the time taken to develop new enhanced materials and the products into which they are incorporated.

Safety may be predictable from the composition of such materials. Such information is often easily available. However, this may not be enough. Advanced materials are design to have enhanced properties (e.g. increased electrical conductance, increased strength, light emitting properties…) which may not be predictable in terms of health effects on humans or other organisms. Furthermore, mixtures of chemicals can interact in the human body or environment to potentiate toxicity.

Demonstrating similarity of a material to other substances that already exist is one way to inform safety decision making at an early innovation stage. An assessment of similarity of physicochemical characteristics combined with similar use scenarios can be used to inform the potential exposure routes and hazards based on prior knowledge of better understood substances. The regulators refer to this process as grouping and read-across, and permit such an approach even during a regulatory submission to approve a new substance. By staging the complexity of the evidence gathering that underlies grouping and read-across, sufficiently flexibility can be applied to allow a lighter-touch approach to consideration of risk at early design stages. Such processes are being used to support the development of a wide range of materials.

Sustainability goes far beyond the considerations of safety, to include factors such as resource use, energy expenditure, waste production and recycling ability. Studies are now starting to explore how grouping and read-across might also support incorporation of sustainability considerations into the early design stages of new materials.