SOME of the grandest ideas about how to preserve the environment involve molecular-scale engineering known as nanotechnology. Such visions might inspire more confidence, though, if there were real products available to achieve them.
Nanotechnology’s supporters have been talking for more than a decade about fashioning new metals, plastics and biological compounds that could enable innovations like increasingly efficient batteries for electric cars and solar energy panels for homes. They also say that nanotechnology can be used to restore damaged environments — by cleansing polluted soil, for example, with tiny particles that could make toxins harmless.
There is nothing implausible about such ideas. It is easy to see how the ability to manipulate matter at the scale of a few nanometers, or billionths of a meter, could lead to environmental breakthroughs. That is one reason billions of dollars are being spent on nanotechnology research.
For now, though, nanotechnology is often linked to the environment in a negative way: the fear of the potential hazards posed by novel inventions. Novelists like Michael Crichton have imagined nanoscale robots creating an ecodisaster. On a more practical level, toxicologists are struggling to assess the damage actual particles can do to living cells and laboratory animals.
But the article also argues that the absence of a symbolic green nanotech product does not mean there is no progress and goes on to list some examples. Environmetalists safety concerns over engineered nanoparticles are also addressed.