Research Advancing Green Manufacturing of Nanotechnology Products
The scientific community has a general perception that nanotechnology will have a significant impact on developing green and clean technologies with considerable environmental benefits. In fact, renewable energy applications may be an area where nanotechnology will make large-scale commercial breakthroughs.
One area of green nanotechnology, however, has received less scientific attention: The actual processes and environmental impacts of manufacturing nanomaterials.
For example, studies on the use of nanomaterials in microchip production show that, in some cases, the amount of fossil fuel use for developing a microchip is 400 times higher than that of producing a refrigerator and 700 times that of a car.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have found that nanomanufacturing processes may:
- Require extraordinary levels of purity in terms of starting materials, water, and chemicals, as well as a clean room environment
- Require repeated processing, post-processing, or reprocessing steps
- Require high vacuums and other specialized environments
- Use or generate greenhouse gases
- Use less than 1% of the starting materials in the final product
To support sustainable production processes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working with others, including the international community through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). EPA researchers are testing certain nanomaterials that are similar to commercially manufactured nanomaterials. In this effort, they are working to address the following issue of sustainability:
- How can energy consumption be minimized and waste/pollution prevented in the manufacturing of nanomaterials and products?
One promising area of research is the production of nanomaterials using benign agents from tea extract, vitamins, and even carbohydrates. Pollution prevention (e.g., green chemistry) research may also be very helpful in the development of environmentally friendly manufacturing processes for nanomaterials. The general approach will be to develop a strategy that allows the greener preparation of these nano-scale materials.
Three of the main green chemistry areas in manufacturing that will be investigated by EPA include:
- The choice of solvent
- The reducing agent employed
- The capping or dispersing agent
EPA is conducting workshops with industry and academia to discuss ways to advance nanotechnology using green manufacturing processes. Information and ideas are being exchanged about what preferred manufacturing approaches are available via green chemistry. These workshops will help all participants consider how nanotechnology products can be designed in the most environmentally sustainable manner possible.
Application and Impact:
This research will be used to inform EPA, industry, and academia about potentially greener approaches for nanomanufacturing.
The results of this research will also be used as input for future life-cycle analyses. Such assessments are holistic and comprehensive and track a product from its inception (cradle) through its final disposal (grave). A well-designed assessment tool can support decisions in the development of green nanotechnologies.
The goal is to develop a decision-support framework available to stakeholders that is easy to apply and can accommodate a wide variety of nanomaterials.
EPA believes that partnerships with industrial sectors is important for ensuring that responsible development is part of nanomaterial manufacturing. Working in partnership with producers, their suppliers, and users of nanomaterials to develop best practices and standards in the workplace, throughout the supply chain, will help to ensure the responsible development of the production, use, and end of life management of nanomaterials.
Nora Savage (firstname.lastname@example.org), National Center for Environmental Research, EPA's Office of Research and Development, 703-347-8104.