Environmental impact of nanotechnology
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|Impact of nanotechnology|
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The environmental impact of nanotechnology is the possible effects that the use of nanotechnological materials and devices will have on the environment. As nanotechnology is an emerging field, there is great debate regarding to what extent industrial and commercial use of nanomaterials will affect organisms and ecosystems.
Nanotechnology's environmental impact can be split into two aspects: the potential for nanotechnological innovations to help improve the environment, and the possibly novel type of pollution that nanotechnological materials might cause if released into the environment.
Nanopollution is a generic name for waste generated by nanodevices or during the nanomaterials manufacturing process. Ecotoxicological impacts of nanoparticles and the potential for bioaccumulation in plants and microorganisms is a subject of current research, as nanoparticles are considered to present novel environmental impacts. Of the US$710 million spent in 2002 by the U.S. government on nanotechnology research, $500,000 was spent on environmental impact assessments.
The capacity for nanoparticles to function as a transport mechanism also raises concern about the transport of heavy metals and other environmental contaminants. Two areas of concern can be identified. First, in their free form nanoparticles can be released into the air or water during production, or production accidents, or as waste by-product of production, and ultimately accumulate in the soil, water, or plant life. Second, in fixed form, where they are part of a manufactured substance or product, they will ultimately have to be recycled or disposed of as waste.
Scrinis[dead link] raises concerns about nano-pollution, and argues that it is not currently possible to “precisely predict or control the ecological impacts of the release of these nano-products into the environment.” A May 2007 Report to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs noted concerns about the toxicological impacts of nanoparticles in relation to both hazard and exposure. The report recommended comprehensive toxicological testing and independent performance tests of fuel additives. Risks have been identified by Uskokovic in 2007. Concerns have also been raised about Silver Nano technology used by Samsung in a range of appliances such as washing machines and air purifiers.
Life cycle responsibility
To properly assess the health hazards of engineered nanoparticles the whole life cycle of these particles needs to be evaluated, including their fabrication, storage and distribution, application and potential abuse, and disposal. The impact on humans or the environment may vary at different stages of the life cycle.
The Royal Society report identified a risk of nanoparticles or nanotubes being released during disposal, destruction and recycling, and recommended that “manufacturers of products that fall under extended producer responsibility regimes such as end-of-life regulations publish procedures outlining how these materials will be managed to minimize possible human and environmental exposure” (p.xiii). Reflecting the challenges for ensuring responsible life cycle regulation, the Institute for Food and Agricultural Standards has proposed standards for nanotechnology research and development should be integrated across consumer, worker and environmental standards. They also propose that NGOs and other citizen groups play a meaningful role in the development of these standards.
Environmental applications of nanotechnology
Nanoremediation is the use of nanoparticles for environmental remediation. Nanoremediation has been most widely used for groundwater treatment, with additional extensive research in wastewater treatment. Nanoremediation has also been tested for soil and sediment cleanup. Even more preliminary research is exploring the use of nanoparticles to remove toxic materials from gases.
Some nanoremediation methods, particularly the use of nano zero-valent iron for groundwater cleanup, have been deployed at full-scale cleanup sites. Nanoremediation is an emerging industry; by 2009, nanoremediation technologies had been documented in at least 44 cleanup sites around the world, predominantly in the United States. During nanoremediation, a nanoparticle agent must be brought into contact with the target contaminant under conditions that allow a detoxifying or immobilizing reaction. This process typically involves a pump-and-treat process or in situ application. Other methods remain in research phases.
Nanofiltration is a relatively recent membrane filtration process used most often with low total dissolved solids water such as surface water and fresh groundwater, with the purpose of softening (polyvalent cation removal) and removal of disinfection by-product precursors such as natural organic matter and synthetic organic matter.   Nanofiltration is also becoming more widely used in food processing applications such as dairy, for simultaneous concentration and partial (monovalent ion) demineralisation.
Nanofiltration is a membrane filtration based method that uses nanometer sized cylindrical through-pores that pass through the membrane at a 90°. Nanofiltration membranes have pore sizes from 1-10 Angstrom, smaller than that used in microfiltration and ultrafiltration, but just larger than that in reverse osmosis. Membranes used are predominantly created from polymer thin films. Materials that are commonly used include polyethylene terephthalate or metals such as aluminum. Pore dimensions are controlled by pH, temperature and time during development with pore densities ranging from 1 to 106 pores per cm2. Membranes made from polyethylene terephthalate and other similar materials, are referred to as “track-etch” membranes, named after the way the pores on the membranes are made. “Tracking” involves bombarding the polymer thin film with high energy particles. This results in making tracks that are chemically developed into the membrane, or “etched” into the membrane, which are the pores. Membranes created from metal such as alumina membranes, are made by electrochemically growing a thin layer of aluminum oxide from aluminum metal in an acidic medium.
Some water-treatment devices incorporating nanotechnology are already on the market, with more in development. Low-cost nanostructured separation membranes methods have been shown to be effective in producing potable water in a recent study.
Research is underway to use nanomaterials for purposes including more efficient solar cells, practical fuel cells, and environmentally friendly batteries. The most advanced nanotechnology projects related to energy are: storage, conversion, manufacturing improvements by reducing materials and process rates, energy saving (by better thermal insulation for example), and enhanced renewable energy sources.
Research is ongoing to use nanowires and other nanostructured materials with the hope of to create cheaper and more efficient solar cells than are possible with conventional planar silicon solar cells. Another example is the use of fuel cells powered by hydrogen, potentially using a catalyst consisting of carbon supported noble metal particles with diameters of 1-5 nm. Materials with small nanosized pores may be suitable for hydrogen storage. Nanotechnology may also find applications in batteries, where the use of nanomaterials may enable batteries with higher energy content or supercapacitors with a higher rate of recharging.
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