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Nanotechnology and Nanoscience The Royal Society

Press releases and Media Coverage

Effects of nanotechnology on the environment 11 March 2004

The use of nanotechnology to create new types of miniature sensors, pollutant filters and fuel cell catalysts could benefit the environment, according to evidence, published today (11 March 2004), that is being considered by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering working group on nanotechnology. However, the testimony from industry and academic experts and regulators suggests there is still uncertainty about the impact of releasing nanoparticles into the environment.

Commenting on the evidence, Professor Ann Dowling, chair of the working group on nanotechnology, said: “The working group has been told that nanotechnology is being used to develop applications that may benefit the environment through, for instance, helping to detect and filter out pollutants. It has also been pointed out to us that we still have a lot to learn about how nanoparticles behave when they are released into the environment. There are already many natural and man-made sources of nanoparticles, such as diesel and welding fumes.”

She added: “The evidence that we have received so far, including the testimony at the workshop, has suggested that relatively little is known about the likely overall positive and negative environmental impacts of nanotechnology, and we are now consulting more widely to establish how true this is. The working group is casting its net widely for evidence during the course of its study and continuing to listen to different viewpoints as part of its ongoing work before publication of the report in summer 2004. Much of the evidence we have received is now freely accessible on the study website at www.nanotec.org.uk.

A paint industry representative at the workshop indicated that nanoparticles could be incorporated in energy-saving coatings that would help to reduce heat loss by reflecting infra-red radiation, or to produce ‘smart paints’ that change colour when exposed to changes in temperature or light. However, these products were likely to be more expensive than those currently available, and it was possible that they could become a source of nanoparticles in the environment as the paints eroded.

According to a representative from the telecoms industry, nanotechnology could make the use of materials in manufacturing more efficient and could advance the miniaturisation of sensors with a wide range of applications from monitoring agricultural chemicals to easing the flow of traffic.

Miniature sensors developed through nanotechnology could also be used to detect specific pollutants accidentally or deliberately released into the environment. The removal of pollutants may be achieved through filters incorporating nanoparticles, the first of which may be available within a couple of years. Nanotechnology might also be used in catalysts that promote key chemical reactions within fuel cells that might be used with sources of renewable energy.The working group also discussed with the workshop participants whether regulations governing the release of nanoparticles into the environment were felt to be adequate. It was noted that nanoparticles had some special properties because of their small size, and that these might not be fully taken into account in current regulations.


Read the report: 'Summary of workshop evidence: environmental impacts and applications of nanotechnology'

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The Royal Society 2003
The Royal Academy of Engineering