The worldwide production of carbon nanotubes has already reached some hundreds of tonnes per year. Because of their excellent mechanical and electronic properties, carbon nanotubes could soon be routinely used in flat screens and in the car industry to reinforce supporting structures. They are already used in sporting goods (for example, the first bicycle containing carbon nanotubes in its frame debuted in last year's Tour de France). However, despite their increasing use, the effects of nanotubes on human health and on the environment have been largely ignored until now.

Once used, objects containing the nanotubes are generally just disposed of as general waste, regardless of the fact that little is known about how they may affect the environment. The CNRS scientists, led by Emmanuel Flahaut of the University of Toulouse, together with two non-CNRS labs in France, now hope to address this problem. The researchers, who have a budget of €300 000 at their disposal, will mainly look at how carbon nanotubes affect aquatic environments, where pollution is known to concentrate. In particular, they will study how amphibians react when placed in a solution containing a suspension of nanotubes.

The scientists will also look at how the nanomaterials affect human health. They will do this by studying how so-called macrophage cells interact with carbon nanotubes, as well as observing if the lungs of mice produce an inflammatory reaction when exposed to these materials. In previous work, Flahaut and colleagues showed that certain proteins were absorbed in vitro onto carbon nanotubes when put into contact with human plasma and serum. The body could treat nanotubes as foreign agents and lead to inflammatory reactions, say the researchers.

Finally the CNRS team will look at new methods of producing nanotubes that are cleaner and more environmentally friendly than existing techniques.