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The Environmental Footprint of Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology

According to a paper by Hatice Sengül and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, strict material purity requirements, lower tolerances for defects and lower yields of manufacturing processes may lead to greater environmental burdens than those associated with conventional manufacturing. In a study of carbon nanofiber production, Vikas Khanna and colleagues at The Ohio State University found, for example, that the life cycle environmental impacts may be as much as 100 times greater per unit of weight than those of traditional materials, potentially offsetting some of the environmental benefits of the small size of nanomaterials.

Materials engineered at dimensions of 1 to 100 nanometers (1 to 100 billionths of a meter) exhibit novel physical, chemical and biological characteristics, opening possibilities for stunning innovations in medicine, manufacturing and a host of other sectors of the economy. Because small quantities of nanomaterials can accomplish the tasks of much larger amounts of conventional materials, the expectation has been that nanomaterials will lower energy and resource use and the pollution that accompanies them. The possibility of constructing miniature devices atom-by-atom has also given rise to expectations that precision in nanomanufacturing will lead to less waste and cleaner processes. Research described in this special issue suggests that these anticipated benefits remain to be realized.

Other topics explored in the special issue of Journal of Industrial Ecology include:

  • Approaches for identifying and reducing the life cycle hazards of nanomaterials
  • Quantified life cycle energy requirements and environmental impacts from nanomaterials
  • Tradeoffs between nanomanufacturing costs and occupational exposure to nanoparticles
  • Efficiency of techniques for nanomaterials synthesis
  • Improvement of the sustainability of bio-based products through nanotechnology
  • Industrial frameworks for responsible nanotechnology
  • Industrial and public perception about the risks and benefits of nanomaterials
  • Governance and regulation of nanotechnology
  • Industrial ecology is a field that examines the opportunities for sustainable production and consumption, emphasizing the importance of a systems view of environmental threats and remedies.

Roland Clift, Professor of Environmental Technology in the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey and Shannon Lloyd, Principal Research Engineer in the Sustainability & Process Engineering Directorate at Concurrent Technologies Corporation, served as guest editors. Support for this special issue was provided by the Educational Foundation of America, in Westport, Conn., and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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