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 into account.
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 nanomaterials.
Environmental Concerns with Nanotechnology
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 understood.
Nanoparticles in the Environment
Potential for Nanotechnology in Clean Industry
Despite concerns over the impact of nanoparticles on the environment, 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 in Renewable Energy
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 into play.
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 more cheaply.
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 manufacturing.
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