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Environmental Tools of the Future, Today: Nanotechnology
Wednesday, January 15, 2003
NCER Staff Writer
WASHINGTON (NCER) - Nanotechnology is an exciting new science that is receiving more and more attention. But what is nanotechnology and how does it relate to the environment? What role does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) play in nanotechnology research?
Nanotechnology operates at the level of atoms and molecules and has the potential to become a new kid on the environmental protection block. Potentially useful applications of this supertech system include revolutionary advances in pollution prevention, sensors, and waste treatment and remediation. The EPA's Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program has given 16 universities almost $6 million to study this emerging technology.
In layman's terms, nanotechnology is the ability to work at the molecular level, atom-by-atom, to create structures with fundamentally new organizations and characteristics. Such tiny particles exist at the nanometer scale (one billionth of a meter) but can still be detected and manipulated by the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and the atomic force microscope (AFM). These microscopes not only "see" single atoms but also, with a nanoscale-sized arm, can push and pull atoms into place. The process is akin to constructing a building brick by brick.
Scientists are experimenting with such items as nanocrystals, self-assembling nanolayers, stronger than steel nanotubes, protein machines that induce muscles to flex, and "smart" materials that return to their original shape when stimulated. STAR researchers are part of a government-wide effort that doubled in funding from FY 2000 to FY 2001. They are pursuing a highly practical goal: "green nanotechnology" or, finding ways to apply this fast-developing technology to create a cleaner environment.
STAR funding at Lehigh University is helping to optimize and scale up the synthesis of nanosized particles for groundwater cleanup. Other researchers at the University of California/San Diego are developing a solid-state nano-based sensor for real-time, remote detection of certain heavy metals, facilitating the process of tracking and treating these pollutants. At the University of Delaware, researchers funded by STAR are studying the capacity of nanoparticles to treat automobile exhaust gas, replacing expensive platinum group metals and thus reducing the cost of pollution control.
The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is financing 11 projects related to nanotechnology development for nearly $1 million. These projects range from a nanocomposite-based filter for arsenic removal in drinking water to nanofibrous manganese dioxide for emission control of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
The promises of nanotechnology leading to great advances in environmental protection bring questions of potential environmental concerns. Could the use or manufacturing of nanotechnologies release hazardous materials into the environment? Could nano applications lead to biological harm by accumulating in cellular material?
EPA has begun to address these issues with its STAR and SBIR programs,
but more research is required to fully understand if there are any environmental
implications related to nanotechnology. Future research will answer many
of these questions and determine if
nanotechnology will become a vital new environmental tool.
For more information about EPA's STAR grants on nanotechnology visit: http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/recipients.display/rfa_id/225.
To learn more about EPA's SBIR nanotechnology efforts see: