Nanotechnology’s environmental impact can be split into two aspects:
1) The potential for nanotechnological innovations to help improve the environment,
2) And the possibly novel type of pollution that nanotechnological materials might cause if released into the environment, aka Nanopollution.
Let’s look at Nanopollution first.
Nanopollution is a generic name for waste generated by nanodevices or during the nanomaterials manufacturing process.
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.
Of the US$710 million spent in 2002 by the U.S. government on nanotechnology research, $500,000 was spent on environmental impact assessments.
How can nanotechnology help the environment?
1) Environmental remediation
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.
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.
2) Water filtration
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 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.
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.