As auto manufacturers start to realize the utility of incorporating parts and components using nanotechnology to improve their performance, the European Union is looking hard at special regulations to protect the public and the environment from nanoparticles.

These miniscule materials are a double-edged sword. They allow plastics, textiles, alloys and coatings to have new and highly marketable properties, but they also can behave in unexpected ways, passing through human skin into the blood or even brain. How they interact with nature is not understood well by scientists.

But before rules can be framed for auto makers and their suppliers on how they handle, research, develop and manufacture nanomaterials, a definition of nanoparticles is required.

The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission – its science and research arm – is recommending nanoparticles be considered between 1 and 100 nanometers.

Nanotechnology already is being used in car parts and components, including tires. Lanxess, a German chemicals company, has used nano-sized particles made from polymerized styrene and butadiene, the traditional tire rubber raw materials, to manufacture tires that are longer-lasting and grip the road better.

“Our Nanoprene rubber is being tested by a lot of companies worldwide for different types of tires,” says Werner Obrecht, rubber expert at the Technical Rubber Products business unit of Lanxess. “The additive prolongs the mileage of the tires by 15%, enhances grip by the same amount and also reduces rolling resistance.”

InMat Inc., a New Jersey-based company, has developed a coating for tires that mixes nanoparticles of clay with plastics and conventional synthetic rubber. The smaller nano clay particles dramatically reduce the rate at which oxygen can escape, which means the tires depreciate much more slowly.

BMW has produced a catalytic filter for diesel cars coated with carbon nanotube membranes that break up hydrocarbon deposits created by burnt fuel re-entering the combustion chamber. Such filters can remove up to 99% of particulates with diameters of less than a micrometer.

Paints are coming into commercial production that use nanotechnology to migrate silicon particles to the outer surface of the coating, creating an extremely thin, hard, glass-like surface three times more scratch-resistant than conventional non-metallic or metallic paints.

U.S.-based PPG Industries Inc. has produced a nano-based scratch-free paint, CeramiClear, in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz.

As for regulations, the industry worldwide needs to be mindful of potential end-of-life requirements, and not just in Europe.

“The technology is new enough that we are not yet looking at tires or car bumpers that have nano elements and which have reached the end of their lives,” says Sally Tinkle, senior science advisor to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the U.S.

“But we understand the immediacy of these questions and the need to protect public health and the environment.”