By Will Soutter
Environmental Concerns with
Nanotechnology in Clean Industry
Nanotechnology is billed to revolutionize many areas of science and
industry. Nanoparticles, nanotubes and nanofilms have been hot topics
in research for the last two decades, and we are beginning to see
commercial applications of these technologies in some areas -
especially in green and renewable energy technologies.
Whilst in many ways our understanding of nanotechnology - how matter
behaves at the nanoscale, how to measure it, and how to control it -
will help researchers and industry to make great strides forward, there
are also issues with the fate of nanoparticles which we need to take
Many of the materials and chemicals which have been billed as
industry-changing and even miraculous have later turned out to have
unforeseen consequences for the environment and human health - examples
such as DDT, CFCs, asbestos and tetra ethyl lead are etched into our
collective memory, leading many regulators, environmental groups, and
other commentators to express concerns over the potential impacts of
Nanoparticles are incredibly hard to keep track of once they are
released into the environment. Because of this, it is difficult to
assess the effect of nanoparticles on ecosystems. Potential impacts
would likely be caused by long term exposure to low, highly-dispersed
doses of nanoparticles in the environment, making the effects very
difficult to model in trials.
The routes that nano-waste streams can take into the environment are
similarly complex and difficult to track and model. There are numerous
points along the manufacturing supply chain, where nanoparticles can be
released into the atmosphere or into waste water if sufficient care is
not taken. The incredibly small size of the particles, which gives them
the unique properties which make them so attractive, is also a
detriment, as they are so difficult to detect and filter out of waste.
As nanotechnology starts to work its way into more and more consumer
products, there will also be much more variation in the way the
materials are disposed of, and controlling the disposal or recovery
will be much more difficult than in the manufacturing processes.
Careful regulation and good education of consumers will be required, to
ensure that the nano-waste streams are under control, or at least well
Nanotechnology in Clean Industry
Despite concerns over the impact of nanoparticles on the
they could also help to develop clean technologies. Unique material
properties can solve problems and enhance performance where
conventional materials come up short.
Some of the main areas where nanotechnology research has provided
solutions and new techniques are waste water processing, waste
management and treatment (particularly for hazardous chemical and
industrial waste), and air filtration.
Nanomaterials used in construction, and other heavy industry such as
the automotive and aerospace industries, will be lighter and stronger,
making the products more resource efficient, and decreasing the amount
of energy used in manufacture. Smart nanotechnology in the products of
these industries will also work to decrease their environmental impact
throughout their lifetime.
There is a great deal of research effort going into applying the
principles of green chemistry and sustainable manufacturing to
nanotechnology. These principles can help nanomaterials to be
manufactured in a way that minimizes their impact on the environment.
In addition, our increasing understanding of nanotechnology can be used
to improve manufacturing processes in other areas, enabling lower
energy consumption and use of renewable materials.
Nanotechnology is also going to be crucial in the transition away
from fossil fuel derived energy to renewable sources. In particular,
nanotechnology is already making solar panels more efficient, scalable,
and cheaper to manufacture and maintain - in the future, nanomaterials
will become more and more crucial to solar power, as organic
photovoltaic (OPV) and other third-generation solar technologies come
Another key challenge to renewable energy technology is the
inconsistent way the power is generated - large, efficient batteries
are needed to store up excess energy produced during sunny or windy
periods, and release it during lulls to maintain a steady supply.
Nanotechnology can enhance the performance of energy storage
technologies, like batteries and supercapacitors, to allow
high-capacity, long-lifetime energy storage devices to be manufactured
As nanotechnology becomes more commercialized, it has the potential
to become an industry with very strong green credentials. The impact it
could have on the environmental profile of other products and
manufacturing processes is huge, and the manufacturing of the
nanomaterials themselves could become a shining example of sustainable
Care must be taken, however, to make sure we fully understand the
consequences of releasing nanoparticles into the environment, and put
measures in place to prevent their loss whenever possible. New
nanomaterials much also be designed from the very outset to be
manufactured without the need for large quantities of energy and
potentially harmful chemicals.
References and Further Reading