How Does Nanotechnology Impact the Environment?

While there may be benefits, long-term effects remain uncertain.

Close up picture of microscope in the laboratory
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Nanotechnology is a broad term for science and technological inventions that operate on the "nano" scale—one billion times smaller than a meter. One nanometer is about three atoms long. The laws of physics operate differently at the nano-scale, causing familiar materials to behave in unexpected ways at nano-scales. For example, aluminum is safely used to package soda and to cover food, but at the nano-scale it's explosive.

Today, nanotechnology is used in medicine, agriculture, and technology. In medicine, nano-sized particles are used to deliver drugs to specific parts of the human body for treatment. Agriculture uses nano-particles to modify the genome of plants to render them resistant to disease, among other improvements. But it is the field of technology that is perhaps doing the most to apply the different physical properties available at the nano-scale to create small, powerful inventions with a mix of potential consequences for the greater environment.

Environmental Pros and Cons of Nanotechnology

Many environmental areas have seen advancements in recent years due to nanotechnology—but the science isn't perfect yet.

Water Quality

Nanotechnology has the potential to provide solutions to poor water quality. With water scarcity only expected to increase in the coming decades, expanding the amount of clean water available around the world is essential.

Nano-sized materials like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and tungsten oxide can bind to harmful pollutants, making them inert. Already, nanotechnology capable of neutralizing hazardous materials is being used in wastewater treatment facilities around the world.

Nano-sized particles of molybdenum disulfide can be used to create membranes that remove salt from water with one-fifth the energy of conventional desalination methods. In the event of an oil spill, scientists have developed nano-fabrics capable of selectively absorbing oil. Together, these innovations have the potential to improve many of the world's heavily polluted waterways.

Air Quality

Nanotechnology can also be used to improve air quality, which continues to get worse around the world every year from the release of pollutants by industrial activities. However, the removal of tiny, hazardous particles from the air is technologically challenging. Nanoparticles are used to create precise sensors capable of detecting tiny, harmful pollutants in the air, like heavy metal ions and radioactive elements. One example of these sensors is single-walled nanotubes, or SWNTs. Unlike conventional sensors, which only function at extremely high temperatures, SWNTs can detect nitrogen dioxide and ammonia gases at room temperature. Other sensors can remove toxic gases from the area using nano-sized particles of gold or manganese oxide.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Various nanoparticles are being developed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The addition of nanoparticles to fuel can improve fuel efficiency, reducing the rate of greenhouse gas production resulting from fossil fuel use. Other applications of nanotechnology are being developed to selectively capture carbon dioxide.

Nanomaterial Toxicity

While effective, nanomaterials have the potential to unintentionally form new toxic products. The extremely small size of nanomaterials makes it possible for them to pass through otherwise impenetrable barriers, allowing nanoparticles to end up in lymph, blood, and even bone marrow. Given the unique access nanoparticles have to cellular processes, applications of nanotechnology have the potential to cause widespread harm in the environment if sources of toxic nanomaterials are accidentally generated. Rigorous testing of nanoparticles is needed to ensure potential sources of toxicity are discovered before nanoparticles are used at large scales.

Regulation of Nanotechnology

Due to toxic nanomaterial findings, regulations were put in place to ensure nanotechnology research was carried out safely and efficiently.

Toxic Substances Control Act

The Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, is the 1976 U.S. law that gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to require reporting, record keeping, testing, and restrictions to the use of chemical substances. For instance, under the TSCA, the EPA requires testing chemicals known to threaten human health, like lead and asbestos.

Nanomaterials are also regulated under the TSCA as "chemical substances". However, the EPA has only recently begun asserting its authority over nanotechnology. In 2017, the EPA required all companies that manufactured or processed nanomaterials between 2014 and 2017 to provide the EPA with information on the type and quantity of the nanotechnology used. Today, all new forms of nanotechnology must be submitted to the EPA for review before entering the marketplace. The EPA uses this information to assess the potential environmental effects of nanotechnology and to regulate the release of nanomaterials into the environment.

Canada-U.S. Regulatory Cooperation Council Nanotechnology Initiative

In 2011, the Canada-U.S. Regulatory Cooperative Council, or RCC, was established to help align the regulatory approach of the two countries in various areas, including nanotechnology. Through the RCC's Nanotechnology Initiative, the U.S. and Canada developed a Nanotechnology Work Plan, which established ongoing regulatory coordination and information sharing between the two countries for nanotechnology. Part of the Work Plan includes sharing information on the environmental effects of nanotechnology, such as applications of nanotechnology known to benefit the environment and forms of nanotechnology found to have environmental consequences. The coordinated research and implementation of nanotechnology helps ensure nanotechnology is used safely.