Currently, potential and actual applications of nanotechnology in environmental technologies are receiving considerable attention worldwide. Relevant applications include environmental remediation (air, water and soil), monitoring, and resource saving (energy and materials). These technologies are not only intended for markets in wealthy countries, including in Europe, the USA and Japan, but may also be particularly useful for protecting consumers and the environment in emerging economies and developing countries. Furthermore, research groups and companies in emerging economies and developing countries are increasingly active in R+D and manufacturing environmental nanotechnologies, as part of a national knowledge economy. As an example, the ICPC-NanoNet project supports international research cooperation in environmental nanotechnology between the European Union and International Cooperation Partner Countries to the EU. This article focuses on the case of nanotechnology for water purification.
Solar-powered splitting of water promises an attractive, clean energy source and numerous research projects around the world are working on making this process sufficiently efficient - reducing the systems' cost and extending their lifetimes - to be able to compete with dirty carbon fuels on an industrial scale. Natural photosynthesis uses chlorophyll to absorbe visible light and many solar hydrogen cells are imitating this process by using light-sensitive organic dye molecules as light absorbers and then transfer the absorbed energy to a catalyst that reduces protons to hydrogen. Researchers in the UK have now shown that an inexpensive and environmentally benign inorganic light harvesting nanocrystal array can be combined with a low-cost electrocatalyst that contains abundant elements to fabricate an inexpensive and stable system for photoelectrochemical hydrogen production.
Carbon nanotubes are 'strange' nanostructures in a sense that they have both high mechanical strength and extreme flexibility. Deforming a carbon nanotube into any shape would not easily break the structure, and it recovers to original morphology in perfect manner. Researchers in China are exploiting this phenomenon by making CNT sponges consisting of a large amount of interconnected nanotubes, thus showing a combination of useful properties such as high porosity, super elasticity, robustness, and little weight. The nanotube sponges not only show exciting properties as a porous material but they also are very promising to be used practically in a short time. The production method is simple and scalable, the cost is low, and the sponges can find immediate use in many fields related to water purification.
The batteries that power our everyday devices, from laptop computers, to mobile phones, watches, toys and flashlights, are a major source of pollution. The average household in the Western world uses about 20 batteries a year, resulting in hundreds of thousands of tons of discarded batteries that end up in landfills. When the battery casing corrodes, toxic heavy metals like mercury and cadmium can leak out and pollute soil and ground water. Researchers have been working on non-metal batteries but so far the performance of the used materials has not been good enough for commercial applications. One way to improve the performance of nonmetal-based energy storage devices is to use composite electrode materials of conductive polymers, deposited as thin layers on a suitable large surface area substrate. Researchers have now developed a novel polypyrrole-cellulose composite electrode material that is mechanically robust, lightweight, and flexible.
There is no denying the fact that plastic wastes have caused serious environmental problems - and continue to do so. Everyday plastic products, for instance water bottles or plastic bags from supermarkets, are so durable that they will either not rot at all or have long biodegradation periods of 50 years and more. Although so-called 'biodegradable' plastic products typically contain chemicals that help them fragment, the additives do not render the plastic biodegradable. While it is important to develop various techniques for the elimination of plastic wastes - landfills, incineration etc. - these solutions typically present several disadvantages such as re-entering the environment and cause re-pollution, loss of natural resources, or depletion of landfill space. Researchers in China have now developed a technique that uses waste plastics as carbon source for synthesizing silicon carbide nanomaterials. This may actually provide an effective method to help solve the environmental pollution of waste plastics.
A very ambitious idea that has been kicked around for the past couple of years has gained a lot of momentum over the past few months. The vision that, if realized, would be a true energy revolution, is called Desertec and would amount to the biggest solar energy project of all times. The project, if realized, will cost 400-500 billion euros ($550-700 bn) and deliver its first energy in about 10 years. The basic idea is to install a huge network of concentrating solar-thermal power plants in the Sahara desert and build a network of High-Voltage Direct Current transmission lines to carry the electricity to Europe. The Desertec concept describes the perspective of a sustainable supply of electricity for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa up to the year 2050. By then, it could satisfy as much as 15 percent of the European Union's power needs. It shows that a transition to competitive, secure and compatible supply is possible using renewable energy sources and efficiency gains, and fossil fuels as backup for balancing power. Also, the technology exists today - it's the scale of the vision that's revolutionary.
In a previous Spotlight we wrote about the fact that the environmental footprint created by today's nanomanufacturing technologies are conflicting with the general perception that nanotechnology is 'green' and clean. Adding to these concerns, a new study looks at the waste solids generated by the production of metallofullerenes and fullerenes and addresses the question whether feedstock-associated metals pose potential risks to aquatic receptors. The intent of this new study was to communicate that the purity of nanomaterials should be heavily characterized to ensure that the toxicological ramifications of the actual finished nanoproduct is accurately represented. Additionally, the authors suggest that carbon nanomanufacturing byproducts should be characterized so as to facilitate more informed decision-making on management of their associated waste streams.
Zeolites are microporous, aluminosilicate minerals commonly used as commercial adsorbents. These materials are also known as molecular sieve - they contain tiny pores of a precise and uniform size that are useful as adsorbent for gases and liquids. Due to these characteristics, zeolite has found wide applications in adsorption, catalysis, and the removal of heavy metal ions from industrial wastewaters. The zeolites commonly used to remove heavy metal ions from industrial effluent are in the form of fine powders and must be recovered by solid-liquid separation subsequent to the purification process. Although the separation is possible for single-phase liquid or gas detoxification processes, the practical application of fine zeolite powders to complex multiphase systems is rather limited. Researchers in Canda have now devised a new technology to separate the spent sorbent powders from treated streams. This could extend the application of zeolites to a much wider range of systems.