But researchers and environmentalists have long cautioned that working with molecular-scale materials offers unforeseen threats to humans, animals and the planet. Today, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology released a report, "Green Nanotechnology: It's Easier Than You Think," which outlines the ways to harness nanotech's power to reduce pollution, conserve resources and, ultimately, build a "clean" economy.
The report is based on discussions with scientists, policymakers, lawyers, and NGO and industry representatives. It explores the benefits of linking nanotech with green chemistry and engineering, which aim to minimize environmental impacts through resource-conserving and waste-eliminating improvements in processes and products.
The report focuses on four areas where nanotechnology can benefit from and improve environmental concerns:
- Creating new nanotechnology-enabled products and processes that are environmentally benign - or "clean and green";
- Managing nanomaterials and their production to minimize potential environmental, health, and safety risks;
- Using nanotechnology to clean up toxic waste site and other legacy pollution problems;
- Substituting green nanotechnology products for existing products that are less environmentally friendly.
The report details research progress toward using nanotechnology to accomplish environmental goals in combination with commercial or other objectives. "With greater ability to manipulate matter and tailor properties, it should be possible to make products and processes with reduced toxicity, increased durability and improved energy efficiency," according to the report.
One example is James Hutchison, a University of Oregon chemist, who uses DNA molecules in a novel process that holds promise for building nanoscale patterns on silicon chips and other surfaces. The method saves materials and requires less water and solvent than the traditional printing techniques used in the resource-intensive electronics industry.
Other researchers are investigating nanoscale approaches to replace lead and other toxic materials in electronics manufacturing. Nanotechnology has also opened promising new routes for making inexpensive solar cells as well as improving the performance and lowering the cost of fuel cells. At the same time, work at the nanoscale is leading toward tools for removing toxic materials and cleaning up hazardous waste sites.