Nanotechnology could work miracles for our environment; it may provide new ways to reduce pollution as well as our ecological footprint. Nanosilver, which kills microbes, may help clean up oil spills and other harmful chemicals. Also, Nanotechnology may filter and clean dirty or salty water in a cheap and efficient manner, which has huge implications for many parts of the developing world.
But as we have seen before, many of nanotechnology’s exciting possibilities also come with potential setbacks. Nanosilver, for example, can be very toxic. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed it a pesticide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. Nanosilver is already used in many products because of its antimicrobial properties — so what happens when these silver nanoparticles wash out of the products into the environment?
Nanotechnology may produce miniature sensors that detect certain pollutants in the environment. Filters made of nanoparticles could then help remove these pollutants. And the possibilities don’t end there. Not only could nanotechnology create self-cleaning surfaces to reduce existing pollution, but it may even prevent industries from polluting in the first place. That is, of course, assuming we aren’t polluting the environment with the nanoparticles themselves. This could be especially problematic because recycling products with nanomaterials may be more difficult than usual. What’s worse, we may not be able to detect nanoparticles once they are released into the environment. If we later discover that we are harming wildlife and ecosystems, we may be stuck without a way to recycle or clean up the tiny particles.
Nonetheless, nanotechnology also offers innovative possibilities in the world of renewable energy. Various solar products look promising, like spray-on plastic solar cells that harness infrared light from the sun. We may be able to paint a hydrogen-powered car with a film that could continually recharge the car’s battery by converting energy into electricity. We might even be able to create nanogenerators that power things like cell phones by using our bodies’ kinetic energy. Pretty cool stuff, if you ask me.
Despite the claims that nanotechnology will make energy production, storage, and conservation more efficient, we need more life cycle assessments to verify the reality of these promises. Some scientists think that making nano-applications will actually require a lot more energy than people had thought necessary, resulting in more damage to the environment than good.
Whether we’re talking energy conservation or environmental clean up, the few existing studies on the topic show that some nanomaterials may be harmful to algae, invertebrate and fish, which we use as environmental indicators. Evidence also suggests that nanoparticles can be passed down generationally in both plants and animals. Two types of carbon nanomaterials may also delay rice flowering by at least 1 month, which could diminish one of the world’s most vital crops.
Needless to say, we have a lot to watch out for. But we also need to be careful not to mix and match different aspects of nanotechnology because there’s an entire universe of different particles with many nuances. Some nanoparticles, born from the earth’s fires and volcanic eruptions, have been present since the very beginning — so organisms have adapted to them. But engineered nanomaterials are a different story, and even within that genre, many variations exist. Diesel and welding fumes, for example, have been releasing nanoparticles for years. Ultimately, we just don’t know how the different man-made nanoparticles will interact with the environment. We shouldn’t throw ourselves into the production of all these innovations before we understand the consequences. The last thing we need is a remedy that’s a toxin in disguise.
Sign the petition calling on congress to halt the commercialization of nanotechnology before we understand the risks. Also, stay tuned to find out about the ethics involved with nanotechnology.