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Sustainable nanotechnology - Free Current Commentary

Posted on 18. May, 2015.

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The US National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as, “the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension in the range 1–100 nanometres (nm),” where the tendency is for quantum mechanical effects to become increasingly important toward the smaller end of the range.

It is critical that the particular materials, and devices made from them, should possess properties that are different from the bulk (micrometric or larger) materials, as a consequence of their small size, which may include enhanced mechanical strength, chemical reactivity, electrical conductivity, magnetism and optical effects.
The term sustainable has been used overly and often incorrectly, essentially to mean things that are environmentally benign, but including a degree of “greenwash” in some cases. [Greenwash is a compound word based on “whitewash”, and refers to a deceptive form of promotion (spin) that portrays the products, aims or policies of an organisation in an environmentally benign (green) light].
In ecology, sustainable systems are self-sustaining, or self-regenerating (regenerative), as occur in nature. We may note that the phrase “sustainable agriculture” has been described as an oxymoron, since agriculture is by its very nature unsustainable, relying as it does on inputs of all kinds, e.g. petroleum, natural gas, synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and water, and that it renders the soil vulnerable to erosion with the progressive and global loss of productive land.
It is even more vexing to find a precise definition of sustainable nanotechnology, since the individual sustainability aspects of all components must be considered. ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering has recently presented its second special issue concerning Sustainable Nanotechnology. Those papers featured in this issue were presented at the 2nd Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (SNO) Conference held in November 2013. The conference was attended by over 200 delegates working in academia, industry, and government agencies. The editorial of this special issue offers the following definition: “Sustainable nanotechnology is the research and development of nanomaterials that have economic and societal benefits with little or no negative environmental impacts. The successful application of nanotechnology is contingent upon scientific excellence that provides economic, ethical, and societal benefits.”
While from the associate director of the Virginia Tech’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology we have: “Sustainable nanotechnology is the development of science and technology within the 1 – 100 nanometre scale, with considerations to the long-term economic viability and a sensible use of natural resources, while minimising negative effects to human health and the environment. Potential negative effects may be caused by engineered nanomaterials or by anthropogenic changes in the prevalence of naturally occurring nanomaterials.” As she further stresses: “When addressing ‘sustainable nanotechnology’, we must address economic needs, human safety, and environmental conservation. Sustainable nanotechnology demands extra creativity and innovation in an already innovative field. How can we make materials safer to people? How can we make manufacturing less energy intensive? How can we minimise waste? These are a few good driving questions towards sustainable nanotechnology. 

Read the full article, free, in Science Progress, Volume 98, Number 1, March 2015, pp. 63-72.

Author: Christopher J. Rhodes

Keywords: sustainable nanotechnology, silver nanoparticles, cellulose, nanocellulose, gold nanoparticles, zeolite, toxicology, Caenorhabditis elegans

DOI:10.3184/97809059274715X14174581133414

Image: "Nanostars-it1302" by Furmanj at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons