U.S. REGULATORS WANT TO KNOW
WHETHER NANOTECH CAN POLLUTE
Small Times Correspondent
WASHINGTON, March 8, 2002 – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is gathering information on the potential perils of nanotechnology even while it's enlisting the science in its fight against pollution.
For the second consecutive year, the agency is seeking bids from researchers who want to use nanotechnology to make the environment cleaner. But the EPA will also pay for research projects that illuminate possible dangers, said Barbara Karn, the EPA official in charge of the agency's forays into nanotechnology research.
“We decided that if indeed it’s true that this will revolutionize our industries and how we do business, then it behooves us to be proactive about this, and to look at both the dark and the bright side” of nanotechnology, said Karn. “Suppose self-assembling molecules get out and build themselves all over the place, or suppose we can’t control nanoparticles the same way we control powders. There are always possibilities for environmental or health harms.”
The new research agenda will focus on nanotechnology products, as well as the processes involved in manufacturing them. The work falls within a swath of the EPA that deals with “green manufacturing,” Karn said, where the agency studies different manufacturing processes in their entirety.
“If you’re making a nanomaterial that may help minimize waste in a chemical process, but that nanomaterial is extracted from something that is pouring pollutants into the environment or it is extracted from something that has devastated the landscape, then you need to take into account the full lifecycle,” she said.
EPA TO HOST DEBATE
The agency organized a debate to be held at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Monday, with different scientists and authorities arguing for and against “dark side” and “bright side” interpretations of nanotechnology.
Mark Wiesner, director of the Environmental and Energy Systems Institute and professor of chemical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, will be among the debate's participants.
Wiesner is also involved with the university’s months-old Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, which Wiesner said is the first institute in the nation to focus on nanotech and the environment.
He applauded the EPA’s willingness to deal openly with issues that could present roadblocks in the future.
“With emerging technology, what we often have not done is instill in researchers and the community a sense of precaution in developing these things, some thoughtfulness about how this research will play into the environment,” he said.
“People talk about incorporating nanotubes in composites that might be used in tires. When you drive tires around, they wear down, and so nanotubes will be passed around in the environment. Where does this stuff go? What will be its interaction with the environment? Is it the next best thing to sliced bread, or the next asbestos?”
Those are the sorts of questions the center, which was established in September with a $10.5 million National Science Foundation grant, will explore.
Failing to prep the research community and the public on the dark and bright sides of research can hobble industries, he said. Just look at the cold reception the biological engineering industry received, particularly overseas, when it introduced bioengineered crops into fields and foods onto supermarket shelves.
One obvious research area, he said, is examining where nanomaterials go and what they do when they enter the environment. For example, what is their mobility in ground water? Will they remain there for long periods of time?
NANO FOCUS A 'DISTRACTION'
An executive at one nanotechnology company said that regulators should look at broader environmental issues, such as acid rain, rather than focus on specific technologies.
"In my opinion, I think it’s a bit of a distraction to focus on nano anything. They should take a higher-level approach and say, 'What is the environmental impact … in general?’" said Robert Dye, chief technical officer for Technanogy, an Irvine, Calif., manufacturer of nanoengineered aluminum. "They need to understand the overall picture better … I have a high regard of EPA, and I hope they have a high standard."
He said that while he does not oppose using EPA money to scrutinize nanotechnology, the agency has been doing it for years already without knowing it.
"If you look at ground contaminants in the soil, you’re looking at individual molecules in the soil, which is what nanotech is all about," he said. The agency’s research into asbestos and acid rain research, he said, also represents work on the nanoscale.
Technanogy manufactures nanoengineered aluminum. The company’s environmental emissions, he said, are "zero."
"Our worst problem is we use electricity," he said. "It’s not like a traditional chemical plant, where you have byproducts, at least in our manufacturing."
By vaporizing aluminum and capturing the vapors, the company increases the surface area of aluminum by thousands and even millions of times, he said.
NANOTECH AS POLLUTION SOLUTION
In addition to the environmental-effects research, the EPA is paying for new research this year that will investigate different ways nanotechnology help make the environment cleaner.
Last year the agency put aside about $5 million for nanotechnology research, through which 16 different grants will be awarded. The award winners are expected to be announced at the end of this month. This year, the agency is spending the same amount of money on nanotechnology research.
The focus for both years is fixed on sensors, pollution treatment and green technologies, she said.
For example, the EPA could help develop pollution-monitoring sensors or labs-on-a-chip so material can be analyzed in the field. Karn also said catalysts could be developed that weaken pollutants, or nanoparticles placed in ground water systems to scavenge for pollutants and toxins. Karn said she’d “love” to see civil engineers build pipes coated on the inside with materials that would degrade pollutants as they come through the pipes.
Green manufacturing technologies could include, for example, processes taking advantage of the self-assembly of molecules – which could be environmentally friendly – instead of more harmful traditional manufacturing processes.
Within the EPA, she said, nanotechnology isn’t yet high-profile research, but she said it’s “getting more play.” Eventually, she said, the agency should have a fleet of people fluent in nanotechnology and its environmental and policy issues.