Advantages, disadvantages and environmental policies
Nanotechnology is a general term for scientific and technological inventions that operate on the “nano” scale, one billion times smaller than one meter. A nanometer is about three atoms long. The laws of physics work differently at the nanoscale, causing familiar materials to behave unexpectedly at the nanoscale. For example, aluminum is used safely to package sodas and to cover foods, but at the nanoscale it is explosive.
Today, nanotechnology is used in medicine, agriculture and technology. In medicine, nanoscale particles are used to deliver drugs to specific parts of the human body for treatment. Agriculture uses nanoparticles to modify the genome of plants to make them resistant to disease, among other improvements. But it is the field of technology that perhaps does the most to apply the various physical properties available at the nanoscale to create powerful little inventions with a mix of potential consequences for the environment as a whole.
Environmental advantages and disadvantages of nanotechnology
Many environmental fields have seen advancements in recent years thanks to nanotechnology, but the science is not yet perfect.
Nanotechnology has the potential to provide solutions to poor water quality. With water scarcity expected to increase only in the coming decades, it is essential to increase the amount of potable water available globally.
Nanoscale materials like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and tungsten oxide can bind to harmful pollutants, rendering them inert. Nanotechnology capable of neutralizing hazardous materials is already being used in wastewater treatment facilities around the world.
Nanoscale 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-tissues capable of selectively absorbing oil. Together, these innovations have the potential to improve many heavily polluted waterways around the world.
Nanotechnology can also be used to improve air quality, which continues to deteriorate around the world every year due to the release of pollutants from industrial activities. However, removing dangerous tiny particles from the air is a technological challenge. Nanoparticles are used to create precise sensors capable of detecting tiny harmful pollutants in the air, such as heavy metal ions and radioactive elements. An example of such sensors is single wall nanotubes, or SWNTs. Unlike conventional sensors, which only operate 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 nanoparticles of gold or manganese oxide.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Various nanoparticles are being developed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Adding nanoparticles to fuel can improve energy efficiency, by reducing the rate of greenhouse gas production resulting from the use of fossil fuels. Other applications of nanotechnology are being developed to selectively capture carbon dioxide.
Toxicity of nanomaterials
Although effective, nanomaterials have the potential to unintentionally form new toxic products. The extremely small size of nanomaterials allows them to cross otherwise impenetrable barriers, allowing nanoparticles to end up in lymph, blood and even bone marrow. Given the unique access that nanoparticles have to cellular processes, applications of nanotechnology have the potential to cause widespread damage to the environment if sources of toxic nanomaterials are accidentally generated. Rigorous testing of nanoparticles is needed to ensure that potential sources of toxicity are discovered before nanoparticles are used on a large scale.
Due to the discoveries of toxic nanomaterials, regulations have been put in place to ensure that nanotechnology research is conducted in a safe and efficient manner.
Toxic Substances Control Act
The Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, is the U.S. law of 1976 that gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to require reporting, record keeping, testing, and restrictions on the use of chemicals. For example, under the TSCA, the EPA requires testing of chemicals known to threaten human health, such as lead and asbestos.
Nanomaterials are also regulated by the TSCA as “chemicals”. However, the EPA has only recently started asserting its authority over nanotechnology. In 2017, the EPA asked all companies that manufactured or processed nanomaterials between 2014 and 2017 to provide the EPA with information on the type and amount of nanotechnology used. Today, all new forms of nanotechnology must be submitted to the EPA for review before entering the market. 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. Cooperative Regulatory Council, or RCC, was created to help harmonize the two countries’ regulatory approach in various areas, including nanotechnology. As part of the RCC Nanotechnology Initiative, the United States and Canada developed a Nanotechnology Workplan, 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 be beneficial to the environment and forms of nanotechnology that have environmental consequences. The coordinated research and implementation of nanotechnology helps ensure that nanotechnology is used safely.