Nanotech & Environment: A Match Made in Heaven?


As with all new, innovative technologies, nanotechnology has attracted its fair share of controversy, garnering both steadfast advocates who tout its merits in revolutionizing healthcare, surveillance and materials and firm detractors who question its potential effects on human health and the environment. While scientists working in the nascent field of environmental nanotechnology have already demonstrated its benefits in cleaning up pollutants and monitoring and preventing their spread, others, more concerned about the long-term effects related to exposure and chemical reactivity, have called for studies into ecotoxicology.

Despite the wide-ranging debates among researchers nanotechnology has sparked, there has been surprisingly little discussion among policy makers over its perceived advantages and faults. Instead, the European Commission has been pushing ahead with the action plan on environmental technologies it published in 2004 and has funded several projects under the Sixth Framework Program (FP6). David Rickerby, an official at the Institute of Environment and Sustainability of the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC), has warned that Europe is falling behind countries such as Japan and the U.S. which have already invested a tremendous amount to take advantage of the new technology. "In Japan they have recognised that solutions to various problems could be found in nanotechnology. They have also realised that there is a huge market for this field, which is also driving more research."

"The field is a little under-funded in Europe. In Europe we've tended to focus on health applications and the risks of nanoparticles in comparison with North America. This is not an unwise decision, but means that the nano-advantages for the environment are under-funded in comparison to the US," he continued.

Yet all is not bleak on the European front: a UK company has begun incorporating nanoparticles into paints, dubbed "ecopaint," to give them the ability to remove pollutant particles such as nitrogen oxides and clean themselves. Three other pan-European projects under FP6, abbreviated PICADA, NANOS4 and AMBIO, have showed early signs of success.

PICADA (Photocatalytic Innovative Coverings Applications for De-pollution Assessment) aims to find a solution to facade soiling and staining, a problem that has been exacerbated in recent decades by increasing atmospheric pollution. Soiling affects the maintenance costs of buildings and has implications for the quality of the urban environment.

The main objective of AMBIO (Advanced Nanostructured Surfaces for the Control of Biofouling) is similar to that of PICADA in that it seeks to develop antifouling coatings which work through their nanoscale physico-chemical properties. It attempts to accomplish this without the release of harmful biocides, which are toxic to the environment.

The scientists behind NANOS4 (Nano-structured solid-state gas sensors with superior performance) hope to create a gas sensing system that uses advanced micro- and nanotechnologies to safeguard the environment.

EU policymakers and scientists will have the opportunity to debate the role nanotechnology can play in tackling environmental problems at the "Nanotechnology: Environmental technology for the future?" session which will be held June 14 as part of the EU's Green Week from June 12-15, 2007.

::Nanotechnology and the Environment: beauty rather than beast?

See also: ::Environment, Health, and the Nanotechnology Age: An Interview with Professor George Whitesides, ::Report Links Nanotechnology to Fight Against Climate Change, ::Green Nano: What you don't know..., ::The Electron, Nanotechnology, and Solar Power, ::NanoNanoNano, ::Berkeley California Drafts Nanotechnology Regulations

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