Nanotechnology in the 'green' economy - opportunities and risks

(Nanowerk Spotlight) There is a general perception that nanotechnologies will have a significant impact on developing 'green' and 'clean' technologies with considerable environmental benefits. The associated concept of green nanotechnology aims to exploit nanotech-enabled innovations in materials science and engineering to generate products and processes that are energy efficient as well as economically and environmentally sustainable. These applications are expected to impact a large range of economic sectors, such as energy production and storage, clean up-technologies, as well as construction and related infrastructure industries.
A recent review article in Environmental Health ("Opportunities and challenges of nanotechnology in the green economy") examines opportunities and practical challenges that nanotechnology applications pose in addressing the guiding principles for a green economy.
The authors provide examples of the potential for nanotechnology applications to address social and environmental challenges, particularly in energy production and storage (read more: "Nanotechnology in Energy") thus reducing pressure on raw materials, clean-up technologies as well as in fostering sustainable manufactured products. The areas covered include:
  • nanomaterials for energy conversion (photovoltaics, fuel cells, hydrogen storage and transportation)
  • nanomaterials for energy storage
  • nanomaterials for water clean-up technologies
  • nanomaterials for the construction industry (read more: "Nanotechnology in the Construction Industry")
  • These solutions may offer the opportunities to reduce pressure on raw materials trading on renewable energy, to improve power delivery systems to be more reliable, efficient and safe as well as to use unconventional water sources or nano-enabled construction products therefore providing better ecosystem and livelihood conditions.
    Conflicting with this positive message is the growing body of research that raises questions about the potentially negative effects of engineered nanoparticles on human health and the environment. This area includes the actual processes of manufacturing nanomaterials and the environmental footprint they create, in absolute terms and in comparison with existing industrial manufacturing processes (read more: "Not so 'green' nanotechnology manufacturing").

    Consequently, the review aims to critically assess the impact that green nanotechnology may have on the health and safety of workers involved in this innovative sector and proposes action strategies for the management of emerging occupational risks.

    The authors propose action strategies for the assessment, management and communication of risks aimed to precautionary adopt preventive measures including full lifecycle assessment of nanomaterials (read more: "Evaluation of 'green' nanotechnology requires a full life cycle assessment"), formation and training of employees, collective and personal protective equipment, health surveillance programs to protect the health and safety of nano-workers.

    Concluding, the scientists emphasize that green nanotechnology should not only provide green solutions, but should also 'become green' in terms of the attention paid to occupational safety and health. In this context, a full democratic discussion between expertise should be pursued to carefully balance the benefits of green nanotechnology and the potential costs for the society, particularly in terms of environmental, public and occupational health. This careful consideration will maximize environmental and societal benefits, health gains and cost savings and will increase the likelihood of further investment and sustainable development of this promising technological field.
    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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