Nanotechnology and the Environment
Nanotechnological products, processes and applications are expected to contribute significantly to environmental and climate protection by saving raw materials, energy and water as well as by reducing greenhouse gases and hazardous wastes. Using nanomaterials therefore promises certain environmental benefits and sustainability effects. Note, however, that nanotechnology currently plays a rather subordinate role in environmental protection, whether it be in research or in practical applications. Environmental engineering companies themselves attach only limited importance to nanotechnology in their respective fields.
Potential environmental benefits
Rising prices for raw materials and energy, coupled with the increasing environmental awareness of consumers, are responsible for a flood of products on the market that promise certain advantages for environmental and climate protection. Nanomaterials exhibit special physical and chemical properties that make them interesting for novel, environmentally friendly products.
Examples include the increased durability of materials against mechanical stress or weathering, helping to increase the useful life of a product; nanotechnology-based dirt- and water-resistant coatings to reduce cleaning efforts; novel insulation materials to improve the energy efficiency of buildings; adding nanoparticles to a material to reduce weight and save energy during transport. In the chemical industry sector, nanomaterials are applied based on their special catalytic properties in order to boost energy and resource efficiency, and nanomaterials can replace environmentally problematic chemicals in certain fields of application. High hopes are being placed in nano-technologically optimized products and processes for energy production and storage; these are currently in the development phase and are slated to contribute significantly to climate protection and solving our energy problems in the future.
In most commercially available “nano-consumer products“, environmental protection is not the primary goal. Neither textiles with nanosilver to combat perspiration odor, nor especially stable golf clubs with carbon nanotubes, help protect the environment. Manufacturers often promise such advantages, typically without providing the relevant evidence. Examples include self-cleaning surface coatings or textiles with spot protection, with are advertized as reducing the cleaning effort and therefore saving energy, water and cleaning agents.
Emphasis is often placed on the sustainable potential of where nanotechnology will take us. Nonetheless, this usually reflects unsubstantiated expectations. Determining the actual effects of a product on the environment – both positive and negative – requires examining the entire life cycle from production of the raw material to disposal at the end of the life cycle. As a rule, the descriptions of environmental benefits fail to consider the amount of resources and energy consumed in producing the products. (read more: "Nanotechnology and the environment - Potential benefits and sustainability effects")
Specific examples of nanotechnology applications that benefit the environment
Nanotechnology could make battery recycling economically attractive
Many batteries still contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel, which can contaminate the environment and pose a potential threat to human health when batteries are improperly disposed of. Not only do the billions upon billions of batteries in landfills pose an environmental problem, they also are a complete waste of a potential and cheap raw material. Researchers have managed to recover pure zinc oxide nanoparticles from spent Zn-MnO2 batteries alkaline batteries.
Nanomaterials for radioactive waste clean-up in water
Scientists are working on nanotechnology solution for radioactive waste cleanup, specifically the use of titanate nanofibers as absorbents for the removal of radioactive ions from water. Researchers have also reported that the unique structural properties of titanate nanotubes and nanofibers make them superior materials for removal of radioactive cesium and iodine ions in water.
Nanotechnology-based solutions for oil spills
Conventional clean-up techniques are not adequate to solve the problem of massive oil spills. In recent years, nanotechnology has emerged as a potential source of novel solutions to many of the world's outstanding problems. Although the application of nanotechnology for oil spill cleanup is still in its nascent stage, it offers great promise for the future. In the last couple of years, there has been particularly growing interest worldwide in exploring ways of finding suitable solutions to clean up oil spills through use of nanomaterials.
The potential impact areas for nanotechnology in water applications are divided into three categories – treatment and remediation, sensing and detection, and pollution prevention – (read more: "Nanotechnology and water treatment") and the improvement of desalination technologies is one key area thereof. Nanotechnology-based water purification devices have the potential to transform the field of desalination, for instance by using the ion concentration polarization phenomenon (see: "Nanotechnology makes portable seawater desalination device possible").
Another, relatively new method of purifying