Nanomaterial and the Environment

Nanomaterials are defined as materials with at least one external dimension in the size range from approximately 1-100 nanometers [1]. The fine structure of the wax crystals covering a lotus or nasturtium leaf and spider-mite silk are some of the natural organic nanomaterials [2]. Scientist and industry produce synthetic nanomaterials in the form of nanopowders, nanotubes, nanowires from different metal, alloy, rare earth oxide and Compound [3]. But what is special about nanomaterials?

The vast increase of surface area to volume ratio in nanomaterial increases their chemical and biological reactivity and alters their physical and electrical properties [2]. Nanomaterials have many industrial uses, for example in the building industry they are used to treat exterior surfaces to make the surface “unwettable” or hydrophobic. In hydrophobic surfaces we find that droplets of water roll off the surface, swiping dirt with them. Hence a natural self-cleaning occurs which reduces the use of water and cleaning agents especially in high rising buildings. Also, treating stone facades and concrete with nanomaterial reduces water absorption and thus results in better insulation against hot and cold weather [4].

Also, synthetic nanotechnology can copy what nature is doing for millions of years with biological molecules and produce materials assembled with atomic precision in a much more environmentally friendly way. While, the current power consuming methods of processing (melting, chilling, vaporizing, drilling, casting etc.) which involve the handling of billions upon billions of atoms of any given element at a time [5]. Researchers are creating nanowires and carbon nanotubes programmed for super strong, efficient and cheap products. Such innovations could benefit the environment. In clean energy production, the nanowires and other nanostructured materials will produce cheaper and more efficient solar cells than possible with conventional planar silicon materials. Nanotechnology can lead to batteries with higher energy content that could reduce the problem of battery disposal. Thus, nanomaterials offer manufacturers the ability to enhance the environmental performance of products by enabling them to reduce energy consumption and nature pollution [6].

Nanotechnology will help innovations in wastewater treatment and soil remediation. Nanostructured membranes lead to an effective mechanical filtration that helps to remove containments from water. Likewise, nanoscale iron particles could be used in soil remediation, acting as detoxifying agents.  In nanomedicine, there are discussions of dispatching diagnostic nano-machines into the body to detect cancer when only a few cancerous cells exist. Moreover, nanotechnology could be used as a tool for genetic research [7].

Nevertheless, one should not ignore the fact that living organisms might not have natural protective mechanisms against synthetic nanomaterials [8]. Friends of the Earth’s report an extensive use of nanomaterials in sunscreens and anti-aging creams to shampoos and toothpastes, despite preliminary scientific evidence that many types of nanoparticles can be toxic and pose risks to consumers, workers and the environment [9].

This video provides examples of how products containing nanoparticles are being sold in absence of safety assessment and regulation.

In Canada, nanomaterials are regulated under existing legislation such as the:  Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Fertilizers Act, the Feeds Act and the Food and Drugs Act [10].  However, due to the unique properties of nanomaterials specific risk assessment of these substances needs to occur to quantify and understand their behavior and toxicity.  The federal government is funding the majority of nanotechnology research in about 25 University in Canada via the National Research Council of Canada, Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Business Development Bank of Canada [11]. Canada spends approximately $13 million annually on nanotechnology research, which is 1/6th per capita of what the United States is spending in this field [12].  Table 1 shows number of patents and publications for leading countries in the field of nanotechnology. Although countries like the US and China shows significant investments in this field, but taking into consideration per capita investments and patents issued relative to GDP we find that South Korea and Taiwan top of the list. Canada is competitive in terms of publications, but is relatively weak in terms of patents per capita.

Table.1. Nanotechnology’s articles and patents in 2013 for different countries [9, 10]

Screenshot from 2014-04-09 11:03:57

In conclusion, nanotechnology and nanomaterials provide innovative solutions to many problems in every aspect of our life. In particular we find that environment will benefit greatly from application of this technology in reducing energy consumption in transportation, manufacturing, and building sectors. Nevertheless, nanotechnology and nanomaterial are alien to nature and there release into the environment may have unintended and unforeseen consequences. Therefore, research is needed to improve our understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of this technology. Canada should invest at least ten times more in this field taking into consideration its size, population and wealth.

References

[1] http://www.stanford.edu/dept/EHS/prod/researchlab/IH/nano/what_are_nanomaterials.html

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanomaterials

[3] http://www.us-nano.com/?gclid=CP-p2Z_n27wCFQUewwod6iMABg

[4] http://www.nanovations.com.au/Nanotechnology_3.htm

[5] http://www.nanovations.com.au/Nanotechnology_4.htm

[6] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/ecoap/about-eco-innovation/research-developments/eu/511_en.htm

[7] Moore, F. N.  2002. Implications of Nanotechnology Applications: Using Genetics as a Lesson Health Law Review. 10 (3): 9-15

[8]. http://spectrum.ieee.org/podcast/at-work/innovation/the-impact-of-the-invisible

[9] http://nano.foe.org.au/node/100

[10] http://nanoportal.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=en&n=23410D1F-1

[11] http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/aimb-dgami.nsf/eng/h_00005.html

[12] http://www.nanonordic.com/extra/news/?module_instance=2&id=159

[13] http://statnano.com/

[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(nominal)_per_capita

 

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