Nanotechnology is climbing in favor, but will environmental concerns weigh it down?

by Maureen Aylward

The field of nanotechnology has made tremendous progress in medicine, electronics, and materials. As nanotechnology products begin to enter commercial markets, we wanted to know what experts in this field are doing, focusing on, and thinking about. Here’s what we found out from several of our Zintro experts.

Dr. Thomas Abraham, an expert in materials scientist and a technical economic analyst in the field of advanced nanomaterials and nanotechnology, says that nanotechnology is already transforming our lives with new technologies and products. He says that nanotechnology has become a platform to launch new technologies and products that provide substantial benefits in medicine, cancer treatment, imaging technologies, pollution sensors, and environment clean up systems, water treatment and purification, energy generation and storage, lighter materials for transportation, new electronic devices, computer chips and storage devices, effective filters for pollution and viruses, and several new generation devices and applications.

“As nanotechnology tools and devices are developed, nanoparticles and nano-engineered materials and systems are playing increasingly important roles in a number of industrial sectors such as energy, biotechnology, electronics, information technology, healthcare and medicine, and industrial products,” he says. Abraham tells us that hard nanomaterials, such as nanotubes, ceramic powders, quantum dots, and nanosized metals, have the interest of the public and investors.

Abraham points out that there are serious challenges and concerns in the use of nanomaterials. Some nanoparticles may have adverse effects on the environment if they are released in significant quantities in waste streams on land and into the sea. “It may affect the health and wellness of the society we live in. Studies are being conducted to understand environmental implications and track adverse effects to set the limits of release of such materials to the environment,” he says. “This poses a challenge to the affordability and acceptability of nanodevices in society even if the technology is proven and more efficient.”

InVentures, an expert with experience in technology start-ups focused on advanced materials, nanotechnology, clean tech, energy, electronics, and biomedical products, explains that the greatest single challenge will be the potential regulatory hurdles that are being considered by various governments and governing bodies around the world. “The exceptionally broad array of possible applications for nanomaterials, nanostructures, thin-film coatings, and so on will make it difficult, time consuming, and expensive for the stakeholders involved to reach a consensus as to the environmental and health risks that need to be considered,” says InVentures. “In the United States and Europe, these issues are becoming increasingly vexing and could stem the flow of investment capital into nanotechnology until there is clarity on how nanoenabled products will be treated.” However, InVentures points out that the ability to design, optimize, and tailor a product’s performance and efficacy at the near-atomic level has been the primary attraction of integrating nanomaterials and nanotechnology into new products. “Clearly, this gives companies that know how to utilize these materials and manufacturing approaches a decided competitive advantage,” he says.

David Rivkin, PhD and expert in biosciences, nanotechnology, and sustainability, says that nanotechnology has been used commercially in the renewable energy field for many years. “Carbon fibers, nanoclays, carbon nanotubes, nanoparticle optical, and electro-optical materials are all widely used in wind/water power and solar power,” Rivkin explains. “The challenges the technology faces are cost related due to limitations in product capacity, but these issues are becoming less of an issue as industrial production scales pick up.” He says that new technologies like the nanoparticles as optical absorption enhancement coatings for solar cells are now inexpensive and easy to mass produce. “The realization that nanotechnology has been with us for over a thousand years, and we are just starting to understand what nature has to teach us about nanotechnology, offers us an opportunity to explore these special properties cost effectively.”

Gaddi Haase, a Ph.D. in surface physical chemistry, says that on the materials front, nanotechnology often refers to the preparation of substances in the form of a fine powder with particles’ diameter of a few nanometers. “The particle size can change the materials’ physical, electrical, and optical properties, such as color or photon (light) energy absorption for solar cells,” he explains. “Often, semiconductor particles are coated with thin films of other materials, so as to better confine free or photo-induced charge carriers in small dimensions.”

In the field of microelectronics, Haase says that nanotechnology is often referred to as building components on a chip that are a few nanometer long and/or wide. These components may be transistors (switches), diodes, resistors, coils, capacitors and finally, metal lines that interconnect them all. But, he points out that some areas of nanotechnology are “still under investigation in universities, but not available in any form that fits high volume manufacturing that could function reliably in common operating environments.”

Sean Dingman, an expert in nanomaterials and solid state materials for electronic and opto-electronic applications including thin-film materials, sensors and detectors, and nanoscale electronic components, states that there are two challenges of equal importance for the nanotechnology industry: sifting through the research and understanding how the structures behave in the environment.

“The first challenge is sifting through all of the fantastic research on nanomaterials to determine which materials can address commercial needs where no other solution exists,” says Dingman. “The kinds of nanomaterials and nanostructures that can be made in a lab are nothing less than mind boggling, and research continues to produce new materials daily. But, often those techniques are either not scalable or they create a nanostructure that cannot be integrated into a product.” As an example, Dingman says that microelectronics overcomes this issue because the nanostructure/material of importance can be integrated into a chip from a bottom-up process. These production methods may not be feasible for critical materials outside chip manufacturing, however, he says, as many nanomaterials can be made in bulk, like industrial chemicals, but integrating them in products or formulations is difficult.

The second major challenge Dingman points out is understanding how nanomaterials/structures behave in the environment. “I believe that we will not discover new phenomena in terms of ecological effects. For example, a nano-sized tantalum particle is still physically and chemically tantalum; its interaction with the environment is the same as a slab of tantalum metal, but it is the time-scale on which that interaction takes place that is different and which could cause problems,” Dingman says. This scaling effect is true for most nanomaterials, and it is necessary to understand which nanomaterials might have adverse impacts on the environment and if those risks are or are not acceptable.

“Nanomaterials and nanostructures have already demonstrated that they can be game changing technologies. It may never be the cheapest way to go, but where application performance is critical and no other materials suffice, I believe nano shows its strengths,” says Dingman.

By Maureen Aylward

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