Nanotechnology for disaster relief and development cooperation

(Nanowerk Spotlight) The number of areas in which nanotechnology is applied is steadily increasing due to their unique role as cross-sectional technology. In the last few years, the versatile opportunities of nanotechnology predominantly received recognition in the areas of improved efficiency, resource conservation and more sustainable production mechanisms. However, a number of improved and innovative solutions in the areas of Disaster Relief and Development Cooperation are now also on the market.
Nanotechnology has played a critical role in ensuring that the technological advances of the last few years have not only resulted in more robust materials, but that they have also enabled and sped up the miniaturization of wireless information systems and sensors.
This development in particular is of great relevance to both the security forces and rescue units in Disaster Relief, as well as for fire brigades and other organizations. In the case of the former, nanotechnology enables specific technological improvements and innovations in the key areas of protective equipment, communications and navigation systems. While for the latter, clear benefits exist with regard to the improvement of technical equipment and rescue vehicles.
In the area of Development Cooperation which – like Disaster Relief – is often confronted with demands and scenarios that are hard to predict, solutions for nanotechnology in developing countries can offer interesting perspectives for medical care, water treatment, agriculture and food, as well as rural infrastructure development in developing countries.
Nanotechnology for disaster relief and development cooperation
A publication from the Hessian Ministry of Economics, Transport, Urban and Regional Development, aims to inform managers and staff working in Emergency Response services and Development Cooperation as well as related institutions about the innovation potential of nanotechnology for their respective fields of work, and to highlight areas of overlap. The 84-page brochure ("Nanotechnology for disaster relief and development cooperation"; pdf) also addresses companies and industry representatives that are already operating in this area or are interested in tapping in to this market.

The document identifies five nanotechnology disciplines for disaster relief and development cooperation:

1) Intelligent surfaces
Many end users know of nanotechnology because of the so-called lotus-effect. For example, this application makes surfaces less susceptible to pollution, which in turn leads to a reduction in the use of water, energy and detergents. What is less well known is the diverse potential for improving the characteristics of surfaces, in terms of disinfection, conductivity, changing their color or making them resistant to radiation. In the case of marine paints nano coatings can now prevent the adhesion of barnacles. As a result, the use of highly toxic biocides can be avoided, and up to 30 % may be saved in fuel usage. For aircraft, paints are currently being tested that are able to indicate hairline cracks in the fuselage, wings or tail unit by changing color, thereby contributing to increased safety.
2) Sustainability
The sustainable and responsible use of nanotechnology is the most important discipline of all. The great promises and opportunities that nanotechnology has to offer will only come to fruition if we handle nanotechnology with great care and foresight. The European Commission is proposing a code of conduct, which is due to reach as far as covering research of individual mechanisms – even though at the current stage many researchers still do not know the possible consequences and application areas of their research results. Throughout the life cycle of nanotechnology – i.e. during their production, processing, use and disposal – potential risks and consequences ought to be identified and adequately researched or addressed, in line with the precautionary principle. Aside from safety, a second principle ought to be applied: nanotechnology should be used in those areas where they not only create added value, but where they also make a contribution to sustainable development. Our Common Future (1987): “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
3) Improved processes
Intelligent surfaces and new materials enable better processes. Nanotechnology offers great potential for finding technological answers to key questions of the 21st Century. More specifically, nanotechnology opens up opportunities in the area of process optimization and already delivers solutions for a more efficient and effective use of resources and raw materials. In the field of energy and telecommunications, the potential is considered to be high as well.
4) New materials
Nanoscale materials or materials that have been treated with nanotechnology can deliver great potential for efficiency. If used in technical systems, they allow an extension of life due to the reduction of the material-specific wear and tear of traditional materials such as metal, plastics and ceramics. In addition, intelligent materials – so-called smart materials – such as hybrid or composite materials enable entirely new products. The breadth of applications in this area is enormous and the potential for development is far from exhausted. Applications range from electrospun wound dressings with in-built drug depots, to skyscrapers built with nano scale building materials, where the benefits of nanotechnology can be seen in a number of ways, ranging from shell and core of structural work made of ultra high strength concrete to fire resistant thermal glazing.
5) A taste of the future
From mobile phones with built-in food or environmental sensors to multi-functional textiles with flexible displays or new chips for medical diagnosis: the full potential of nano analytics and nano sensor systems may have only been researched in part so far, but many product developments and innovations can already give a taste of the potential of developments yet to come. Great promise is currently found in the areas of analytics and sensor technology as well as in their combination with information and telecommunication technologies, which are also highly relevant for Disaster Relief and Development Cooperation.
To facilitate reading and further use of this publication as a workbook and a resource for ideas, the authors have developed a design-oriented structure. To start with, each chapter is structured as follows:
  • The introduction outlines a number of basic facts on a certain application area from a user’s perspective.
  • The so-called application panorama (e.g. pandemic prevention) uses one selected example to explain the work of Development Cooperation or Disaster Relief and highlights possible solutions nanotechnology might offer.
  • The challenges illustrate recurring problems within this application area.
  • The nanosolutions highlight existing nanotechnology-based solutions in response to these challenges.
  • In the NanoFUTURE section we refer to innovations in science and the private sector which could provide solutions in the future.
  • The main chapters deal with these seven areas:
    Medicine and Health Protection
    Medical treatment of the general public in the case of an emergency is regulated by state and federal level laws and regulations. The term Disaster Medicine includes all medical interventions which are necessary when dealing with a mass casualty incident involving injured or ill people. Disaster medicine is the link between emergency services and disaster management and is regulated by the respective German federal states’ relevant emergency services or disaster management laws. One key challenge in disaster medicine is that medical treatment of individual with regard to hygiene, precision and diagnostics can only be delivered and maintained to a limited extent. In Development Cooperation, the general lack of medical care is one of the key factors. Developing countries and some emerging countries are characterized by a generally low life expectancy and high rates of infant and child mortality. These are mainly due to a high infection risk, lack of medical staff, lack of drugs and patients’ weak immune systems caused by malnutrition.
    Potential nanotechnology solutions:
  • – Innovative disinfectants with long-term efficacy
  • – “Lab-on-a-Chip”: Miniature laboratories for use in clinical diagnostics
  • – Antimicrobial wound dressings
  • – Insecticides in textiles can save lives
  • – Improved cooling chain and intelligent packaging
  • – Mobile diagnostics
  • – Refrigerator box running on fuel cells
  • – Improved bioavailability of drugs
  • – Innovative sensor technology
  • Emergency Response Resources and Protective Equipment
    In many professions the use of personal protective equipment (e.g. safety shoes, helmets and gloves, or bulletproof vests) is mandatory. This is detailed in the accident prevention regulations and rules of the accident insurance institutions and by state level legislations of the federal states. The wearing of appropriate personal protective equipment to protect against hazards in fire fighting activities is required in accordance with the applicable regulations.
    Potential nanotechnology solutions:
  • – Coatings with long-term efficacy
  • – Increased stab resistance
  • – Anti reflective coating for visors, protective goggles and displays
  • – Anti fog coating for visors, protective goggles and displays
  • – Innovative filters for breathing masks
  • Emergency Vehicles and Emergency Equipment
    The demands placed on emergency vehicles and equipment used in fire protection and disaster relief are high: peaks of extreme pressure alternate with long periods of rest, and a fire engine is generally in use for approximately 25 years. In this time span, the vehicles do not accumulate a very high mileage because in some cases, several days or weeks can pass between emergency response operations or training exercises. However, it is these long periods of rest which are particularly challenging for these vehicles.
    In an emergency, the emergency equipment has to withstand short but high-intensity periods of pressure e.g. from heat or water, just to then remain unused until the next emergency. The above scenario not only applies to emergency vehicles but also concerns emergency equipment: it must be ready for use within seconds and has to function with absolute reliability. In the field of International Development Cooperation, the resilience of equipment to ageing and weather is also of particular importance. In many developing countries, vehicles, machinery and technical equipment are subjected to extreme climatic conditions. Spare parts are hard to come by and there is usually not enough money to fund new purchases. An increase in the “life span” of existing equipment is therefore of vital interest.
    Potential nanotechnology solutions:
  • – Safety, durability and reduced fuel consumption
  • – Self-cleaning and anti-corrosive coatings
  • – Applications for Nanofiber-Coated Media
  • Decontamination
    In general, decontamination describes the treatment of pollution caused by hazardous radioactive, biological or chemical substances. General decontamination measures carried out by fire fighters include the primary cleaning of Emergency Response staff and their protective clothing, as well as the cleaning of civilians, equipment and vehicles. In addition, the term decontamination includes the cleaning of polluted objects and areas with the aim of reducing existing contamination to an acceptable level.
    Emergency Response operations involving dangers posed by radioactive, biological or chemical substances therefore place very particular demands on fire and disaster management personnel – not only during the acute phase of deployment but also in the aftermath: the first step is to contain the contamination as well as possible and to clean contaminated individuals without further spreading the contamination. At a later stage, a huge yet often neglected challenge is the disposal of polluted, contaminated (fire fighting) water which must not enter the sewage system or ground water unfiltered.
    Potential nanotechnology solutions:
  • – Decontamination of fire water and soil
  • – Improved sensor technology
  • Water
    In the field of water purification, nanotechnology can provide valuable services which will be of particular benefit to Development Cooperation and Disaster Relief. Nanotechnology applications are already available on the market in the form of cleaning mechanisms, such as water treatment, wastewater treatment or groundwater remediation. The issues of safe water supply and drinking water are central to the cooperation work with developing countries. The image of smiling children by a gushing water tap is literally synonymous to a successful project. In fact, in many areas of the world, the provision of safe drinking water often provides the foundations for a decent life. The issue of wastewater disposal, however, is often neglected in this context, despite its huge relevance – in the rural areas of Africa as much as in the sprawling mega cities of Asia or Latin America.
    The main problem is that the cost for the disposal and cleaning of polluted water is about three times higher than the cost of water supply. The consequences of a lack of waste disposal systems are obvious: in addition to serious environmental pollution there is an increased risk of infections and diseases. However, the issue of water is not only relevant in Development Cooperation. Even in countries with functioning water supply and sanitation systems such as Germany, the systems remain susceptible to failure. The risk of terrorist attacks on the drinking water supply – with possibly fatal consequences – is at least conceivable. In many disaster management plans, the treatment of drinking water has so far been neglected. Experience shows, however, that in the case of emergency, the transport and mobile treatment of drinking water become issues of vital importance requiring fast resolution.
    Potential nanotechnology solutions:
  • – Filtration of drinking water
  • – Desalination
  • – Removal of arsenic from drinking water
  • Construction and Housing
    Setting up accommodation quickly that offers shelter to as many people as possible – this is the challenge relief workers are faced with in disaster areas and hot spots the world over. The most common choice is tents, because they are cheap and easy to transport and set up. The protection they offer against the weather, however, is correspondingly low. In addition, these emergency shelters are not designed for long-term use, and yet many of them are in use for weeks if not months in refugee camps. The task of ensuring an effective protection of houses and buildings against environmental conditions is not limited to the field of Disaster Relief. In fact, every house owner has an interest in protecting his property against the weather as effectively as possible.
    This is a major challenge in developing countries in particular, since in many regions the climatic conditions are much more extreme than in our temperate zone: buildings are exposed to extreme heat as well as freezing cold, while elsewhere long rainy seasons alternate with extreme drought. Parasites are also a nuisance to buildings and their inhabitants.
    According to experts, emerging economies in particular are currently witnessing the development of a market based on the issue of building protection. For any solution to be successful in this sector, it will have to be both highly efficient and affordable.
    Potential nanotechnology solutions:
  • – Surface protection with long-term effects
  • – Antibacterial wood polish
  • – Using photocatalytic building materials to improve air quality
  • – Ultra high-strength concrete
  • – Multifunctional emergency accommodation
  • – More efficient climate control
  • – Concrete canvas shelters
  • – Nanogel used as building insulation
  • Energy and Communications
    Shrinking resources, rising energy prices and progressive climate change have all demonstrated over the last few years that a fundamental shift in thinking must take place in the field of energy production and supply. What are the alternatives? This is the crucial question; the answers are also of relevance to Development Cooperation and Disaster Relief, because we need to also think about alternatives in these areas. After all, millions of people in developing countries are still far away from being connected to a central power supply. Alternative solutions will have to be found instead, in order to e.g. supply shops or public buildings with electricity.
    In the area of emergency protection, access to off-grid electricity is a key issue as power supply must be ensured even if the network collapses. What is needed here are decentralised, small and mobile high-performance power supply units. For both Disaster Relief and Development Cooperation, the question of efficient energy storage mechanisms is also of vital importance.
    Mobile phones have become the most important means of communication in developing countries. According to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), every second person in these countries was already using a mobile phone in 2008. The infrastructure is good – almost every village in Africa has mobile phone reception. Internet penetration is much slower, however.
    Besides their role as means of communication, mobile phones are an important source of information for people in developing countries, the economic relevance of which must not be underestimated: The mobile phone facilitates trade and promotes economic development.
    A question that arises both in Development Cooperation and Disaster Relief concerns the power supply of communication media: How can mobile phones, two-way radios and computers be supplied with power reliably and independently from the grid? In an emergency, the success of the Emergency Response operation hinges on efficient communication between rescue workers. Fail-safe storage units that can, for example, keep telecommunications equipment running even when the power grid collapses, are also of vital importance in an emergency.
    Potential nanotechnology solutions:
  • – Improved and more efficient photovoltaic power plants
  • – Potential for innovation in fuel cells
  • – Emission-free emergency power units
  • – Mobile diagnostics
  • – Off-grid power supply
  • – Sustainable recycling
  • – High-tech wood stove
  • Agriculture and Nutrition
    Around one billion people worldwide suffer from hunger. Rapid population growth, shortages of arable land and global economic conditions are worsening this situation further. Above all, however, it is climate change that will be aggravating the nutritional situation in the poorest regions of the southern hemisphere. Its effects on agriculture are already becoming apparent today. Furthermore, malnutrition – so far mainly a problem in Western industrialized countries – is increasingly becoming a problem in emerging and developing countries.
    With a view to nutrition, the main challenge for Disaster Relief in the case of an emergency is to be able to supply sufficient amounts of food whilst also adhering to the required hygiene standards. At the same time, the spread of diseases caused by spoiled food must be avoided, e.g. in refugee camps. Production, distribution and quality of foodstuffs are therefore key challenges for both Development Cooperation and Disaster Relief. In both areas the sufficient production and efficient distribution of available food resources must be ensured. In addition, solutions need to be found that can compensate for possible deficiencies in food quality, such as nutritional additives and supplements.
    Potential nanotechnology solutions:
  • – Targeted use of pesticides and fertilizers
  • – Multi-functional food additives
  • Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
    Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
    Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
    Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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