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AI (artificial intelligence) for Good Global Summit from May 15 – 17, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland: details and an interview with Frederic Werner

With all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI), a lot more attention seems to be paid to apocalyptic scenarios: loss of jobs, financial hardship, loss of personal agency and privacy, and more with all of these impacts being described as global. Still, there are some folks who are considering and working on ‘AI for good’.

If you’d asked me, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) would not have been my first guess (my choice would have been United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]) as an agency likely to host the 2018 AI for Good Global Summit. But, it turns out the ITU is a UN (United Nations agency) and, according to its Wikipedia entry, it’s an intergovernmental public-private partnership, which may explain the nature of the participants in the upcoming summit.

The news

First, there’s a May 4, 2018 ITU media advisory (received via email or you can find the full media advisory here) about the upcoming summit,

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now widely identified as being able to address the greatest challenges facing humanity – supporting innovation in fields ranging from crisis management and healthcare to smart cities and communications networking.

The second annual ‘AI for Good Global Summit’ will take place 15-17 May [2018] in Geneva, and seeks to leverage AI to accelerate progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately benefit humanity.

WHAT: Global event to advance ‘AI for Good’ with the participation of internationally recognized AI experts. The programme will include interactive high-level panels, while ‘AI Breakthrough Teams’ will propose AI strategies able to create impact in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society – through interactive sessions. The summit will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

A special demo & exhibit track will feature innovative applications of AI designed to: protect women from sexual violence, avoid infant crib deaths, end child abuse, predict oral cancer, and improve mental health treatments for depression – as well as interactive robots including: Alice, a Dutch invention designed to support the aged; iCub, an open-source robot; and Sophia, the humanoid AI robot.

WHEN: 15-17 May 2018, beginning daily at 9 AM

WHERE: ITU Headquarters, 2 Rue de Varembé, Geneva, Switzerland (Please note: entrance to ITU is now limited for all visitors to the Montbrillant building entrance only on rue Varembé).

WHO: Confirmed participants to date include expert representatives from: Association for Computing Machinery, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Consumer Trade Association, Facebook, Fraunhofer, Google, Harvard University, IBM Watson, IEEE, Intellectual Ventures, ITU, Microsoft, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Partnership on AI, Planet Labs, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, University of California at Berkeley, University of Tokyo, XPRIZE Foundation, Yale University – and the participation of “Sophia” the humanoid robot and “iCub” the EU open source robotcub.

The interview

Frederic Werner, Senior Communications Officer at the International Telecommunication Union and and one of the organizers of the AI for Good Global Summit 2018 kindly took the time to speak to me and provide a few more details about the upcoming event.

Werner noted that the 2018 event grew out of a much smaller 2017 ‘workshop’ and first of its kind, about beneficial AI which this year has ballooned in size to 91 countries (about 15 participants are expected from Canada), 32 UN agencies, and substantive representation from the private sector. The 2017 event featured Dr. Yoshua Bengio of the University of Montreal  (Université de Montréal) was a featured speaker.

“This year, we’re focused on action-oriented projects that will help us reach our Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. We’re looking at near-term practical AI applications,” says Werner. “We’re matchmaking problem-owners and solution-owners.”

Academics, industry professionals, government officials, and representatives from UN agencies are gathering  to work on four tracks/themes:

In advance of this meeting, the group launched an AI repository (an action item from the 2017 meeting) on April 25, 2018 inviting people to list their AI projects (from the ITU’s April 25, 2018? AI repository news announcement),

ITU has just launched an AI Repository where anyone working in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) can contribute key information about how to leverage AI to help solve humanity’s greatest challenges.

This is the only global repository that identifies AI-related projects, research initiatives, think-tanks and organizations that aim to accelerate progress on the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To submit a project, just press ‘Submit’ on the AI Repository site and fill in the online questionnaire, providing all relevant details of your project. You will also be asked to map your project to the relevant World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) action lines and the SDGs. Approved projects will be officially registered in the repository database.

Benefits of participation on the AI Repository include:

WSIS Prizes recognize individuals, governments, civil society, local, regional and international agencies, research institutions and private-sector companies for outstanding success in implementing development oriented strategies that leverage the power of AI and ICTs.

Creating the AI Repository was one of the action items of last year’s AI for Good Global Summit.

We are looking forward to your submissions.

If you have any questions, please send an email to: ai@itu.int

“Your project won’t be visible immediately as we have to vet the submissions to weed out spam-type material and projects that are not in line with our goals,” says Werner. That said, there are already 29 projects in the repository. As you might expect, the UK, China, and US are in the repository but also represented are Egypt, Uganda, Belarus, Serbia, Peru, Italy, and other countries not commonly cited when discussing AI research.

Werner also pointed out in response to my surprise over the ITU’s role with regard to this AI initiative that the ITU is the only UN agency which has 192* member states (countries), 150 universities, and over 700 industry members as well as other member entities, which gives them tremendous breadth of reach. As well, the organization, founded originally in 1865 as the International Telegraph Convention, has extensive experience with global standardization in the information technology and telecommunications industries. (See more in their Wikipedia entry.)


There is a bit more about the summit on the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage,

The 2nd edition of the AI for Good Global Summit will be organized by ITU in Geneva on 15-17 May 2018, in partnership with XPRIZE Foundation, the global leader in incentivized prize competitions, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and sister United Nations agencies including UNESCO, UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNIDO, Global Pulse, UNICRI, UNODA, UNIDIR, UNODC, WFP, IFAD, UNAIDS, WIPO, ILO, UNITAR, UNOPS, OHCHR, UN UniversityWHO, UNEP, ICAO, UNDP, The World Bank, UN DESA, CTBTOUNISDRUNOG, UNOOSAUNFPAUNECE, UNDPA, and UNHCR.

The AI for Good series is the leading United Nations platform for dialogue on AI. The action​​-oriented 2018 summit will identify practical applications of AI and supporting strategies to improve the quality and sustainability of life on our planet. The summit will continue to formulate strategies to ensure trusted, safe and inclusive development of AI technologies and equitable access to their benefits.

While the 2017 summit sparked the first ever inclusive global dialogue on beneficial AI, the action-oriented 2018 summit will focus on impactful AI solutions able to yield long-term benefits and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. ‘Breakthrough teams’ will demonstrate the potential of AI to map poverty and aid with natural disasters using satellite imagery, how AI could assist the delivery of citizen-centric services in smart cities, and new opportunities for AI to help achieve Universal Health Coverage, and finally to help achieve transparency and explainability in AI algorithms.

Teams will propose impactful AI strategies able to be enacted in the near term, guided by an expert audience of mentors representing government, industry, academia and civil society. Strategies will be evaluated by the mentors according to their feasibility and scalability, potential to address truly global challenges, degree of supporting advocacy, and applicability to market failures beyond the scope of government and industry. The exercise will connect AI innovators with public and private-sector decision-makers, building collaboration to take promising strategies forward.

“As the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies, ITU is well placed to guide AI innovation towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development ​Goals. We are providing a neutral close quotation markplatform for international dialogue aimed at ​building a ​common understanding of the capabilities of emerging AI technologies.​​” Houlin Zhao, Secretary General ​of ITU​

Should you be close to Geneva, it seems that registration is still open. Just go to the ITU’s AI for Good Global Summit 2018 webpage, scroll the page down to ‘Documentation’ and you will find a link to the invitation and a link to online registration. Participation is free but I expect that you are responsible for your travel and accommodation costs.

For anyone unable to attend in person, the summit will be livestreamed (webcast in real time) and you can watch the sessions by following the link below,


For those of us on the West Coast of Canada and other parts distant to Geneva, you will want to take the nine hour difference between Geneva (Switzerland) and here into account when viewing the proceedings. If you can’t manage the time difference, the sessions are being recorded and will be posted at a later date.

*’132 member states’ corrected to ‘192 member states’ on May 11, 2018 at 1500 hours PDT.

Spanning north to south and French to English on the African continent with nanotechnology

A Sept. 27, 2015 news item on the Algérie Presse Service (rough translation: Algerian Press Agency) describes plans for a new nanotechnology centre shared by Algeria and South Africa,

Un projet de réalisation d’un centre de recherche algéro-sud-africain dédié à la synthèse et la caractérisation des nanomatériaux (structures à l’échelle de l’atome) pour différentes applications, a été annoncé dimanche à Alger lors d’un workshop sur les nanotechnologies.

Le lieu d’implantation du centre et le programme qui lui sera dédié seront décidés par le ministre de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche scientifique et son homologue sud-africain lors d’une réunion prévue en octobre prochain en Afrique du Sud, a indiqué Pr. Hafid Aourag, DG de la Recherche scientifique et du développement technologique qui présidait ce workshop entre experts algériens et sud africains sur les nanotechnologies.

The announcement about the new centre was made during a nanotechnology workshop being held in Algiers this last weekend (Sept. 26-27, 2015). The proposed nanotechnology center’s location and other details will be decided by the Algerian Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and his South African counterpart during an October 2015 meeting in South Africa according to Hafid Aourag, professor and Director General of Scientific Research and Technological Development in Algeria.

Aourag noted that Algeria and South Africa have a long and successful history of science collaboration,

“La coopération de l’Algérie avec l’Afrique du Sud a atteint un stade très avancé”, a-t-il estimé, révélant l’existence de “beaucoup de projets entre les laboratoires de recherche des deux pays”.

Pr. Aourag a rappelé que les deux pays avaient déjà “cofinancé plus de 25 projets” ayant donné des résultats concrets comme la publication de 35 travaux dans des revues et la réalisation de produits innovants issus des nanotechnologies.

“Il s’agit essentiellement de produits issus des nanomatériaux dans les domaines de l’agriculture et du traitement de l’eau”, a-t-il précisé.

There have been some 25 joint nanotechnology projects ranging from agricultural applications to water treatment.

Aourag added,

Il a relevé que la première centrale technologique en Algérie, dédiée à la fabrication des semi-conducteurs et spécialisée en nanotechnologie, “est déjà fonctionnelle et sera inaugurée, en octobre prochain”.

If I understand this rightly, Aourag is saying that Algeria has focussed on the semiconductor industry and the fabrication of parts at the nanoscale and this will be inaugurated October 2015.

It’s not clear to me  if this business about the semiconductors is part of the nanotechnology centre initiative or if it’s an incidental, related announcement.

As I found this north-south collaboration intriguing, I ran a search and found this on the University of South Africa website in a Sept. 10, 2013 news release,

Professor Malik Maaza, incumbent of the UNESCO-Unisa Africa Chair in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, continues to represent the continent on the global nano stage. He was recently elected as the only African member of the advisory board of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Journal of Materials Chemistry A, a prestigious materials journal.

With about 20 years of experience in nanosciences, Algerian born and an adoptive South African [emphasis mine] Professor Malik Maaza is an ideal incumbent for the UNESCO-Unisa Africa Chair in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. He has undergraduate degrees in Solid State Physics and Photonics from the University of Oran, Algeria, and University of Paris VI, France. His PhD in Neutron Optics was obtained from the University of Paris VI.

He is a man passionate about voicing Africa’s nanoscience and nanotechnology knowledge production progress and contributions. Parallel to the initiation of the South African Nanotechnology Initiative (SANi) launched in 2006, which Maaza instigated with Dr Philemon Mjwara, current Director General of the national department of science and technology, in 2005, in Trieste-Italy, under the patronage of [The World Academy of Sciences] TWAS, [Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics] ICTP and [United Nations Industrial Development Organization] UNIDO, he initiated the Nanosciences African Network (NANOAFNET), which has its headquarters at the iThemba LABS-NRF in Cape Town.

That’s all I’ve got on Algeria-South Africa science-themed relations and connections.

Should anyone have a better translation than I’ve been able to offer or more details about any aspect of this initiative, please do leave a comment.

Earth Day, Water Day, and every day

I’m blaming my confusion on the American Chemical Society (ACS) which seemed to be celebrating Earth Day on April 15, 2014 as per its news release highlighting their “Chemists Celebrate Earth Day” video series  while in Vancouver, Canada, we’re celebrating it on April 26, 2014 and elsewhere it seems to be on April 20, this year. Regardless, here’s more about how chemist’s are celebrating from the ACS news release,

Water is arguably the most important resource on the planet. In celebration of Earth Day, the American Chemical Society (ACS) is showcasing three scientists whose research keeps water safe, clean and available for future generations. Geared toward elementary and middle school students, the “Chemists Celebrate Earth Day” series highlights the important work that chemists and chemical engineers do every day. The videos are available at http://bit.ly/CCED2014.

The series focuses on the following subjects:

  • Transforming Tech Toys– Featuring Aydogan Ozcan, Ph.D., of UCLA: Ozcan takes everyday gadgets and turns them into powerful mobile laboratories. He’s made a cell phone into a blood analyzer and a bacteria detector, and now he’s built a device that turns a cell phone into a water tester. It can detect very harmful mercury even at very low levels.
  • All About Droughts – Featuring Collins Balcombe of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation: Balcombe’s job is to keep your drinking water safe and to find new ways to re-use the water that we flush away everyday so that it doesn’t go to waste, especially in areas that don’t get much rain.
  • Cleaning Up Our Water – Featuring Anne Morrissey, Ph.D., of Dublin City University: We all take medicines, but did you know that sometimes the medicine doesn’t stay in our bodies? It’s up to Anne Morrissey to figure out how to get potentially harmful pharmaceuticals out of the water supply, and she’s doing it using one of the most plentiful things on the planet: sunlight.

Sadly, I missed marking World Water Day which according to a March 21, 2014 news release I received was being celebrated on Saturday, March 22, 2014 with worldwide events and the release of a new UN report,

World Water Day: UN Stresses Water and Energy Issues 

Tokyo Leads Public Celebrations Around the World

Tokyo — March 21 — The deep-rooted relationships between water and energy were highlighted today during main global celebrations in Tokyo marking the United Nations’ annual World Water Day.

“Water and energy are among the world’s most pre-eminent challenges. This year’s focus of World Water Day brings these issues to the attention of the world,” said Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization and Chair of UN-Water, which coordinates World Water Day and freshwater-related efforts UN system-wide.

The UN predicts that by 2030 the global population will need 35% more food, 40% more water and 50% more energy. Already today 768 million people lack access to improved water sources, 2.5 billion people have no improved sanitation and 1.3 billion people cannot access electricity.

“These issues need urgent attention – both now and in the post-2015 development discussions. The situation is unacceptable. It is often the same people who lack access to water and sanitation who also lack access to energy, ” said Mr. Jarraud.

The 2014 World Water Development Report (WWDR) – a UN-Water flagship report, produced and coordinated by the World Water Assessment Programme, which is hosted and led by UNESCO – is released on World Water Day as an authoritative status report on global freshwater resources. It highlights the need for policies and regulatory frameworks that recognize and integrate approaches to water and energy priorities.

WWDR, a triennial report from 2003 to 2012, this year becomes an annual edition, responding to the international community’s expression of interest in a concise, evidence-based and yearly publication with a specific thematic focus and recommendations.

WWDR 2014 underlines how water-related issues and choices impact energy and vice versa. For example: drought diminishes energy production, while lack of access to electricity limits irrigation possibilities.

The report notes that roughly 75% of all industrial water withdrawals are used for energy production. Tariffs also illustrate this interdependence: if water is subsidized to sell below cost (as is often the case), energy producers – major water consumers – are less likely to conserve it.  Energy subsidies, in turn, drive up water usage.

The report stresses the imperative of coordinating political governance and ensuring that water and energy prices reflect real costs and environmental impacts.

“Energy and water are at the top of the global development agenda,” said the Rector of United Nations University, David Malone, this year’s coordinator of World Water Day on behalf of UN-Water together with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

“Significant policy gaps exist in this nexus at present, and the UN plays an instrumental role in providing evidence and policy-relevant guidance. Through this day, we seek to inform decision-makers, stakeholders and practitioners about the interlinkages, potential synergies and trade-offs, and highlight the need for appropriate responses and regulatory frameworks that account for both water and energy priorities. From UNU’s perspective, it is essential that we stimulate more debate and interactive dialogue around possible solutions to our energy and water challenges.”

UNIDO Director-General LI Yong, emphasized the importance of water and energy for inclusive and sustainable industrial development.

“There is a strong call today for integrating the economic dimension, and the role of industry and manufacturing in particular, into the global post-2015 development priorities. Experience shows that environmentally sound interventions in manufacturing industries can be highly effective and can significantly reduce environmental degradation. I am convinced that inclusive and sustainable industrial development will be a key driver for the successful integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions,” said Mr. LI.

Rather unusually, Michael Bergerrecently published two Nanowerk Spotlight articles about water (is there theme, anyone?) within 24 hours of each other. In his March 26, 2014 Spotlight article, Michael Berger focuses on graphene and water remediation (Note: Links have been removed),

The unique properties of nanomaterials are beneficial in applications to remove pollutants from the environment. The extremely small size of nanomaterial particles creates a large surface area in relation to their volume, which makes them highly reactive, compared to non-nano forms of the same materials.

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”).

Silver, iron, gold, titanium oxides and iron oxides are some of the commonly used nanoscale metals and metal oxides cited by the researchers that can be used in environmental remediation (read more: “Overview of nanomaterials for cleaning up the environment”).

A more recent entrant into this nanomaterial arsenal is graphene. Individual graphene sheets and their functionalized derivatives have been used to remove metal ions and organic pollutants from water. These graphene-based nanomaterials show quite high adsorption performance as adsorbents. However they also cause additional cost because the removal of these adsorbent materials after usage is difficult and there is the risk of secondary environmental pollution unless the nanomaterials are collected completely after usage.

One solution to this problem would be the assembly of individual sheets into three-dimensional (3D) macroscopic structures which would preserve the unique properties of individual graphene sheets, and offer easy collecting and recycling after water remediation.

The March 27, 2014 Nanowerk Spotlight article was written by someone at Alberta’s (Canada) Ingenuity Lab and focuses on their ‘nanobiological’ approach to water remediation (Note: Links have been removed),

At Ingenuity Lab in Edmonton, Alberta, Dr. Carlo Montemagno and a team of world-class researchers have been investigating plausible solutions to existing water purification challenges. They are building on Dr. Montemagno’s earlier patented discoveries by using a naturally-existing water channel protein as the functional unit in water purification membranes [4].

Aquaporins are water-transport proteins that play an important osmoregulation role in living organisms [5]. These proteins boast exceptionally high water permeability (~ 1010 water molecules/s), high selectivity for pure water molecules, and a low energy cost, which make aquaporin-embedded membrane well suited as an alternative to conventional RO membranes.

Unlike synthetic polymeric membranes, which are driven by the high pressure-induced diffusion of water through size selective pores, this technology utilizes the biological osmosis mechanism to control the flow of water in cellular systems at low energy. In nature, the direction of osmotic water flow is determined by the osmotic pressure difference between compartments, i.e. water flows toward higher osmotic pressure compartment (salty solution or contaminated water). This direction can however be reversed by applying a pressure to the salty solution (i.e., RO).

The principle of RO is based on the semipermeable characteristics of the separating membrane, which allows the transport of only water molecules depending on the direction of osmotic gradient. Therefore, as envisioned in the recent publication (“Recent Progress in Advanced Nanobiological Materials for Energy and Environmental Applications”), the core of Ingenuity Lab’s approach is to control the direction of water flow through aquaporin channels with a minimum level of pressure and to use aquaporin-embedded biomimetic membranes as an alternative to conventional RO membranes.

Here’s a link to and a citation for Montemagno’s and his colleague’s paper,

Recent Progress in Advanced Nanobiological Materials for Energy and Environmental Applications by Hyo-Jick Choi and Carlo D. Montemagno. Materials 2013, 6(12), 5821-5856; doi:10.3390/ma6125821

This paper is open access.

Returning to where I started, here’s a water video featuring graphene from the ACS celebration of Earth Day 2014,

Happy Earth Day!

Nano, agriculture, and water

Surprisingly, the Council of Canadian Academies’ (CCA) Water and Agriculture in Canada: Towards Sustainable Management of Water Resources assessment (published Feb. 2013) had very little to with regard to how emerging technologies such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology are having and will have an impact on water and agriculture. Here’s the bit on synthetic biology,

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is defined as the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and the re-design of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes (RAE, 2009). It is an emerging technology that is expected to have wide-ranging implications for agriculture in the future (RAE, 2009). The agricultural technology sector anticipates that synthetic biology will lead to greater productivity, profitability, and sustainability by increasing, for example: crop water productivity; nitrogen use efficiency; yields; pest, disease, and drought resistance; and the quality, quantity, and processing characteristics of agricultural products Dunbar, 2011). However, as with current methods of transgenic manipulation, concerns relating to the safety and health impacts of synthetic biology will need to be responsibly and carefully addressed (RAE, 2009). (print version pp. 134-5)

Surely they could have found a more recent reference than 2009. I don’t disagree with the overall assessment of synthetic biology but I think they were a bit miserly to confine themselves to a single paragraph.

As for nanotechnologies,

5.11 Nanotechnologies

Nanotechnology applications are being developed for different agricultural uses including: the detection of pathogenic and parasitic organisms; sensing of environmental conditions and properties (such as humidity, soil moisture, and soil and groundwater contaminants); the controlled release of fertilizers and pesticides; improved water retention in soils and uptake by plants; drug delivery and improved nutrient utilization in livestock; degradation of organic contaminants; and water treatment (Kabiri et al., 2011; Knauer & Bucheli, 2009; Manimegalai et al., 2011; Thornton, 2010). Wireless nanosensors, for example, can be used in combination
with remote sensing and precision irrigation systems to greatly enhance WUE.

Nanoscale technologies for fertilizer and pesticide application can greatly reduce runoff and water contamination. Most nanotechnologies are still in their infancy, and associated risks and benefits must be carefully evaluated. Nonetheless, they represent a promising approach towards greater improvements in WUE (OECD, 2010). However, the potential for negative impacts of nanotechnologies on the environment and health needs to be researched (Knauer & Bucheli, 2009) and their application supported by risk assessment. (pp. 144-5; print version)

Not much attention paid to nanotechnology either, although they did manage to find some more recent references. I wonder why they didn’t organize the information about synthetic biology and nanotechnology  in a section on emerging technologies and discuss some of the implications and research  at more length. Certainly there’s a lot of interest and concern regarding nanotechnology impacts on agriculture and water.

I have two more items for this posting (to prove my point at least in part), one is about nanomaterials and fertilizer and the other one is about two UN organizations and their nanotechnology and water purification initiative.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has released a report about nanomaterials in soil fertilizers according to an April 26, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Nanomaterials added to soil via fertilizers and treated sewage waste used to fertilize fields could threaten soil health necessary to keep land productive, says a new report released today by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Peer-reviewed scientific research also indicates possible negative impacts of nano-fertilizers on public health and the food supply.

IATP’s report, Nanomaterials in Soil: Our Future Food Chain? (pdf), draws attention to the delicate soil food chain, including microbes and microfauna, that enable plant growth and produce new soil. Laboratory experiments have indicated that sub-molecular nanoparticles could damage beneficial soil microbes and the digestive systems of earthworms, essential engineers in maintaining soil health.

The IATP April 24, 2013 news release, which originated the news item,

Nanomaterials are advertised as a component of market-available fertilizers—designed to increase the effectiveness of fertilizers by making them the same size as plant and root pores—but because nanotechnology is an unregulated global industry, there is no pre-market safety assessment. Several researchers assume that nanomaterials are increasingly present in biosolids (also known as sewage sludge) used as fertilizer on about 60 percent of U.S. agricultural land. [emphasis mine]

“In light of published research, the Obama administration should institute an immediate moratorium on fertilizing with biosolids from sewage treatment plants near nanomaterial fabrication facilities. A moratorium would give researchers time to determine whether nanomaterials in soil can be made safe and to research alternatives to building soil heath, rather than depending on fertilization with biosolids.” says IATP’s Dr. Steve Suppan.

Over time, the report explains, nanomaterials in these agricultural inputs can accumulate and harm soil health. More research is urgently needed to adequately understand possible long-term impacts of nanotechnology.

“As agri-nanotechnology rapidly enters the market, can soil health and everything that depends on it can be sustained without regulation?” asks Suppan. “That’s the question regulators, researchers and anyone involved in our food system should be asking themselves.”

The report also details risks specific to farmers and farmworkers applying dried biosolids that incorporate nanomaterials, including inflammation of the lungs, fibrosis and other toxicological impacts.

With no regulatory system in place—in the U.S. or elsewhere—for producing, and selling nano-fertilizers, IATP’s report concludes by asking for governments to require robust technology assessments involving biological engineers, soil scientists, public health professionals, farmers and concerned citizens before allowing indiscriminate application by industry.

It seems to me IATP could have cited some facts, rather than assumptions,  in the news release, and perhaps even referenced a study or two relative to their claim of risks “specific to farmers and farmworkers applying dried biosolids that incorporate nanomaterials, including inflammation of the lungs, fibrosis and other toxicological impacts.” I have looked at the report briefly and there is some interesting and valuable research in there although I haven’t looked closely enough to see if any of it supports the claims in their news release.  I suspect not since they usually trumpet those findings and numbers loudly.

As for the two UN agencies and their water purification and nanotechnology initiative, this May 31, 2013 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Culture Organization) news release explains,

Providing access to clean water is one of the most pressing challenges in developing countries. Lack of access to safe drinking water impacts the lives and well-being of millions of people, whereas non-existent, or inadequate, wastewater treatment is threatening the quality of water resources, as well as ecosystems that we depend on.  Conventional water purification and wastewater treatment technologies often require large infrastructure, high initial capital investment, and considerable operating costs associated with the use of energy and chemicals.

What is the potential that nanotechnology holds to address these water problems?   What nanotechnologies offer the most immediate promise in water purification and wastewater treatment? Which areas of water use are in the largest need of a technological upgrade and innovation?

These were the main questions raised by a joint UNESCO-UNIDO  session on “Nanotechnology Applications in Water Purification and Wastewater Treatment”, which was the kick-off event of cooperation between UNESCO and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which the two organizations have recently embarked on in the area of nanotechnology for clean water in developing countries.

Under this cooperation, the two organizations will work together on a number of joint activities to explore the potential of nanotechnology in water purification and wastewater treatment, as an emerging technology that may provide sustainable and innovative solutions to reach the Millennium Development Goals on safe drinking water and basic sanitation, as well as to contribute towards the post-2015 development agenda and future Sustainable Development Goals.  Complementing ongoing activities of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme aimed at promoting water sciences, the cooperation with the Investment and Technology Unit of UNIDO brings a perspective on how advances in emerging technological developments, such as those in nanotechnology, can be utilized to enhance existing solutions to water problems and make a paradigm shift in water treatment systems, as industrial applications of nanotechnology are expanding rapidly.

Experts participating in the session presented research findings on promising nanotechnology applications in water such as improved membrane technologies, removal of bacteria and other pollutants, including pharmaceuticals and trace contaminants, water quality monitoring, remediation of polluted water systems, greater wastewater reuse, desalinization, as well as less-water intensive agriculture.  The session did not focus on the optimistic technological aspect alone.   Discussions touched upon also on how to draw the line between opportunities and challenges that limit nanotechnology applications in water.

The session emphasized the need for a balanced approach to nanotechnology applications in water and underlined the risks associated with toxicology and wider impacts on human health and the environment as of importance for further deliberations given that water is a basic human need and integral to health and well-being.  Another issue of consideration was ethical issues of nanotechnology applications in water that arise from uncertainties related to environmental and health risks. Participants of the session also shared experiences on community engagement in making nanotechnologies relevant to local needs by presenting an example of using nanotechnology to provide clean water in a school in a developing country village.

Given these recent doings with IATP and UNIDO/UNESCO, I was truly surprised at how little attention the CCA paid to nanotechnologies and, by extension, the other emerging technologies.

Iran, the United Nations, China, and nanotechnology applications for water and wastewater treatment

The Dec. 27, 2012 news item on Nanowerk highlighting a UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) meeting in Tehran observes (Note: Link removed),

The first meeting of United Nations Industrial Development Organization International Center on Nanotechnology (UNIDO ICN) was held in Tehran on December 12-13 titled ‘The First Meeting for the Applications of Nanotechnology in Water and Wastewater Industry: Challenges and Opportunities’.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Secretary General of Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council Dr. Saeed Sarkar pointed out to the importance of nanotechnology in water and wastewater industry. According to him, the creation of a committee consisting of bodies active in the field of standardization in water and wastewater is a must for the application of nanotechnology.

“Energy, health, water, and environment are the priorities of the application of nanotechnology. Therefore, Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council has divided its applicable programs in the field of water and wastewater into three main phases, and we are carrying out the first phase at the moment,” he said.

It must be pointed out that ICN was established in Iran on the suggestion of Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council in 2012, and it tries to develop nanotechnology and its applications in water and wastewater through carrying out international cooperation and through creating capacities in under-developed countries.

UNIDO’s International Center on Nanotechnology webpage features an upcoming symposium in China ((in a sidebar to the right of the screen),

IWA Regional Symposium on Nanotechnology and Water Treatment 2013

The IWA (International Water Association) 2013 Symposium webpage describes the theme and meeting location,

The IWA Symposium on Environmental Nanotechnology 2013 will be held in Nanjing, China from 24-27 April 2013.

The meeting aims at bringing together researchers, specialists, professors and students to exchange ideas and present their latest works on advances in nanotechnology and key environmental issues relating to water/wastewater treatment and water reuse.

We hope to facilitate collaboration and create professional linkages among environmentalists worldwide. Furthermore, the conference could be an international platform to raise one’s academic standing in the specific field.

There are a variety of opportunities for you to participate through attending, presententing,  [sic] exhibiting, and sponsoring.
Proposed Themes:

  • Potential environmental impact of nanotechnology
  • Application of nanomaterials in water treatment

Here are the registration dates,

Early Bird Registration Deadline: 31 December 2012
Authors Registration Deadline: 28 February 2013

Egyptian scientists win cash prize for innovation: a nano test for Hepatitis C

A team of Egyptian scientists won the $10,000 prize for 3rd place at Intel’s 7th Annual Global Challenge held at the University of California at Berkeley. The team,  Dr Hassan M E Azzazy, Tamer M Samir, Sherif Mohamed Shawky, Mai M H Mansour and Ahmed H Tolba, won both an Intel Global Challenge Prize and 1st place in the Arab Technology Business Plan Competition for its Hepatitis C test. From the Nov. 16, 2011 article by Georgina Enzer for ITP.net,

The team developed a Hepatitis C test which uses gold nanoparticles to detect Hepatitis C in less than an hour, and at one-tenth the cost of current commercial tests. The team won a $10,000 prize for their innovation.

The Intel Global Challenge at UC Berkeley encourages student entrepreneurs and rewards innovative ideas that have the potential to have a positive impact on society.

The Egypt team, NanoDiagX, led by Dr Hassan M E Azzazy, Tamer M Samir, Sherif Mohamed Shawky, Mai M H Mansour and Ahmed H Tolba won first place in the 7th Arab Technology Business Plan Competition 2011, organised by the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF) in partnership with Intel Corporation. The regional competition, which was also in partnership with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), features 50 projects from 50 Arab entrepreneurs across 15 countries.

U.S. President Barak Obama has recognized the team’s achievements, from the Nov. 19, 2011 news item on Egypt.com

U.S. President Barack Obama honored the Egyptian team that won third prize of Intel’s Global Leadership after discovering a new cure for hepatitis C virus with nanotechnology.

The Egyptian team, Nano-Diagx, is the first Arab team to win the competition, organized by the Arab Organization for Science and Technology in cooperation with Intel and UNIDO.

Azazi [Dr. Hassan Azazi] said his team s most important advantage is the spirit of teamwork, which is uncommon in the culture of the Arab region.

He added the project used nanotechnology and gold to develop a cure for HIV hepatitis, which affects more than 200 million people worldwide and more than 100,000 Egyptians annually, particularly in cancer cases and cirrhosis of the liver.

It should be mentioned 28 technological projects participated in Intel’s World Challenge this year. The projects are all from 22 countries; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Thailand, America, Portugal, Russia, Turkey, India, Uruguay, China, Japan, Brazil, Taiwan, Philippines, Turkey, Argentina, Chile, Poland, Denmark and Israel.

I came to the conclusion that the team was successful in two competitions, Intel’s World Challenge which attracted 28 entries and the Arab Technology Business Plan Competition which attracted 50 entries even though it’s not stated explicitly in the materials I have read.

Congratulations to the Egyptian team’s accomplishments which become even more noteworthy when you realize the working conditions for many scientists in Egypt. In a Feb. 4, 2011 posting, I excerpted parts of an interview in Nature magazine about Egypt and science,

The article goes on to recount a Q & A (Questions and Answers) session with Michael Harms of the German Academic Exchange Service offering his view from Cairo,

How would you describe Egyptian science?

There are many problems. Universities are critically under-funded and academic salaries are so low that most scientists need second jobs to be able to make a living. [emphasis mine] Tourist guides earn more money than most scientists. You just can’t expect world-class research under these circumstances. Also, Egypt has no large research facilities, such as particle accelerators. Some 750,000 students graduate each year and flood the labour market, yet few find suitable jobs – one reason for the current wave of protests.

If you are interested, here’s the article, ‘Deep fury’ of Egyptian scientists.