A review of the nanotechnology in green technology

Michael Berger has written a Nov. 18, 2014 Nanowerk Spotlight article focusing on the ‘green’ in nanotechnology (Note: A link has been removed),

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.

Here’s a link to and citation for the review article cited by Berger. It is more focused on occupational health and safety then the title suggests but not surprising when you realize all of the authors are employed by the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH),,

Opportunities and challenges of nanotechnology in the green economy by Ivo Iavicoli, Veruscka Leso, Walter Ricciard, Laura L Hodson, and Mark D Hoover. Environmental Health 2014, 13:78 doi:10.1186/1476-069X-13-78 Published:    7 October 2014

© 2014 Iavicoli et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an open access article.

Here’s the background to the work (from the article; Note: Links have been removed),

The “green economy” concept has been driven into the mainstream of policy debate by global economic crisis, expected increase in global demand for energy by more than one third between 2010 to 2035, rising commodity prices as well as the urgent need for addressing global challenges in domains such as energy, environment and health [1-3].

The term “green economy”, chiefly relating to the principles of sustainable development, was first coined in a pioneering 1989 report for the Government of the United Kingdom by a group of leading environmental economists [1]. The most widely used and reliable definition of “green economy” comes from the United Nations Environment Programme which states that “a green economy is one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. It is low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive” [4].

The green economy concept can indeed play a very useful role in changing the way that society manages the interaction of the environmental and economic domains. In this context, nanotechnology, which is the manipulation of matter in the dimension of 1 to 100 nm, offers the opportunity to produce new structures, materials and devices with unique physico-chemical properties (i.e. small size, large surface area to mass ratio) to be employed in energy efficient as well as economically and environmentally sustainable green innovations [8-12].

Although expected to exert a great impact on a large range of industrial and economic sectors, the sustainability of green nano-solutions is currently not completely clear, and it should be carefully faced. In fact, the benefits of incorporating nanomaterials (NMs) in processes and products that contribute to outcomes of sustainability, might bring with them environmental, health and safety risks, ethical and social issues, market and consumer acceptance uncertainty as well as a strong competition with traditional technologies [13].

The present review examines opportunities and practical challenges that nano-applications pose in addressing the guiding principles for a green economy. Examples are provided of the potential for nano-applications to address social and environmental challenges, particularly in energy production and storage thus reducing pressure on raw materials, clean-up technologies as well as in fostering sustainable manufactured products. Moreover, 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 potential nanotechnology impact on green innovations

Green nanotechnology is expected to play a fundamental role in bringing a key functionality across the whole value chain of a product, both through the beneficial properties of NMs included as a small percentage in a final device, as well as through nano-enabled processes and applications without final products containing any NMs [13,14]. However, most of the potential green nano-solutions are still in the lab/start-up phase and very few products have reached the market to date. Further studies are necessary to assess the applicability, efficiency and sustainability of nanotechnologies under more realistic conditions, as well as to validate NM enabled systems in comparison to existing technologies. The following paragraphs will describe the potential fields of application for green nanotechnology innovations.

Intriguingly, there’s no mention (that I could find) of soil remediation (clean-up) although there is reference to water remediation.  As for occupational health and safety and nanotechnology, the authors have this to say (Note: Links have been removed),

In this context according to the proposed principles for green economy, it is important that society, scientific community and industry take advantage of opportunities of nanotechnology while overcoming its practical challenges. However, not all revolutionary changes are sustainable per se and a cautious assessment of the benefits addressing economic, social and environmental implications, as well as the occupational health and safety impact is essential [95,96]. This latter aspect, in particular, should be carefully addressed, in consideration of the expected widespread use of nanotechnology and the consequent increasing likelihood of NM exposure in both living and occupational environments. Moreover, difficulties in nano-manufacturing and handling; uncertainty concerning stability of nano-innovations under aggressive or long-term operation (i.e. in the case of supercapacitors with nano-structured electrode materials or nano-enabled construction products); the lack of information regarding the release and fate of NMs in the environment (i.e. NMs released from water and wastewater treatment devices) as well as the limited knowledge concerning the NM toxicological profile, even further support the need for a careful consideration of the health and safety risks derived from NM exposure.Importantly, as shown in Figure 1, a number of potentially hazardous exposure conditions can be expected for workers involved in nanotechnology activities. In fact, NMs may have significant, still unknown, hazards that can pose risks for a wide range of workers: researchers, laboratory technicians, cleaners, production workers, transportation, storage and retail workers, employees in disposal and waste facilities and potentially, emergency responders who deal with spills and disasters of NMs who may be differently exposed to these potential, innovative xenobiotics.

The review article is quite interesting, albeit its precaution-heavy approach, but if you don’t have time, Berger summarizes the article. He also provides links to related articles he has written on the subjects of energy storage, evaluating ‘green’ nanotechnology in a full life cycle assessment, and more.

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