Some of the most significant challenges facing global society in the 21st century involve the sustainability of the environment (water, soil and air quality), energy, health and food. Existing technologies have had a profound effect on the environment, releasing formidable pollutants into the environment and depleting natural resources.
Nanotechnology, the science of the extremely small, has the potential to have a very large impact on many aspects of society. Unlike many other technologies, nanotechnology has potential applications in virtually all areas of human life, including health and medicine, energy, information technology, material and manufacturing, and the environment. It is this cross-cutting nature of technology that gives it the potential to make a big impact on environmental quality and sustainability.
Nanotechnology and Sustainability
South Africa, like most countries, faces serious challenges from climate change (global warming). Reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) is key to mitigating and reducing the effects of climate change. Adapting to these effects is also and important component of the response to climate change.
To date, nanotechnology has applications in hydrogen storage and the development of efficient hydrogen-powered vehicles, enhanced and cheaper photovoltaics or solar power technology, the development of new batteries and supercapacitors and fuel efficiency.
Depletion of Natural Resources
For example, water is a critical natural resource and accessibility to clean, safe water is one of the challenges faced by most countries. The properties offered by nanomaterials make them well suited for treating water and wastewater.
The depletion of petroleum can also be addressed by nanotechnology through its contribution to alternative energy sources such as solar power and hydrogen fuel.
Preventing Environmental Degradation
Nanotechnology products and nanomaterials can have less impact on the environment. Lightweight nanomaterials for cars and other means of transportation could save fuel and reduce materials used for production. Nanotechnology could reduce pollution from energy production and help to limit fossil fuel use through its application in other renewable energy resources. Nanotechnology can also develop products that specifically target improvement of the environment, for example, it may be applied in cleaning waste sites and water, treating pollutants or monitoring environmental pollutants.
Is Nanotechnology Environmentally Friendly?
Some drawbacks of nanotechnology may exist. Concerns have been raised that the same properties (size, shape, reactivity, etc.) that make nanoparticles useful could also make them harmful to the environment and toxic to humans, for example, if they accumulate in drinking water supplies and the food chain. These concerns are exacerbated by the current poor understanding of the fate and behaviour of nanoparticles in humans and the environment. Risk assessment research is crucial for establishing the potential impacts of nanoparticles on human health and the environment: the technology’s benefits must be balanced against any unintended consequences. This is a massive challenge, since it is very difficult to monitor the possible impact of the huge volume of diverse nanoparticles being produced and used in different products and applications. Although there are currently no nanotechnology-specific regulations in South Africa due to the relative infancy of this emerging technology, the government, through the Department of Science and Technology (DST), is funding a research platform to investigate the environmental, safety and health aspects of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology Public Engagement. For more information visit www.saasta.ac.za.
Source: The Water Wheel March/April Volume 10 No. 2
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