Sustainability has rightly become an integral part of nearly every activity we undertake today. The world of nanotechnology research and development is no different. In a virtuous cycle, researchers developing new nanomaterials, nanotechnology devices, and nanofabrication methods are also focused on achieving outcomes that can help bring about a more sustainable future for us all.
Novel materials, devices, and methods are frequently being brought to bear in industries as diverse as food processing, electronics, agriculture, and cosmetics. But the complexity of these advances and the dynamic behavior of their outcomes make sustainability (and safety) assessment challenging.
Regulation also struggles to keep up with the pace of technological progress in this area.
It is therefore imperative that research and development professionals closely follow sustainable-by-design principles, ensuring that sustainable development is at the core of their activity.
Nanotechnology is one of the technologies that may enable green growth. So-called “green nanotechnology” or “green nanoscience” applies green chemistry principles to the design, production, use, and disposal of nanomaterials and nanotechnology devices.
Researchers have introduced less hazardous nanomaterials such as nano cellulose in place of synthetic nano polymers. Synthesis methods that use safe and renewable materials for substrates, reagents, and solvents have also been developed.
In the decades since nanotechnology became a dedicated field of research, scientists have made significant progress in understanding the environmental and toxicological behavior of different nanomaterials.
However, questions around nanotechnology applications’ sustainability remain. New consumer and industrial products and new generations of nanomaterials are constantly in development, and each represents new challenges for sustainability assessment.
In the last couple of years, regulatory authorities and researchers have identified concerns with so-called “smart” nanomaterials as well. These are materials are designed to interact dynamically with their surroundings, and they are already widely used in products for the biomedical, cosmetic, and consumer and industrial electronic manufacturing sectors.
More sectors will likely adopt smart nanomaterial applications in the future, such as agriculture and construction, which represent significant amounts of human economic activity.
Responding to these challenges, sustainability advocates have proposed a Safe Innovation Approach for nanomaterials research. This combines Safe by Design principles in companies with a Regulatory Preparedness approach in governing bodies.
Nanomaterials that are safe by design will include materials that are not hazardous for humans or the environment, that are produced with no workplace risks or unrecovered waste, and which have available and efficient disposal and recycling routes available for their end of life.
As well as ensuring that the development of nanoscience is not at odds with the world’s ambitions for protecting our planet, including sustainability criteria in nanotechnology development also ensures public acceptance and trust for technological advances.
Nanoscience can also respond to and adapt wider sustainability guidance and regulation designed for the entire economy. The European Green New Deal, for example, as well as the European Industrial Strategy and the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, plans to achieve a sustainable European Union economy that is also fair and inclusive.
The plans are in line with the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals 2030, and policies require that new materials be cost-effective, safe, sustainable, and functional to comply with regulations.
Similarly, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) advocates for “green growth” with “green innovation and technology.” The organization particularly advocates for a circular economy model to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
While these policy initiatives create a framework for sustainable development in nanoscience, they do not specifically address nanoscience, nanotechnology, or nanomaterials.
However, they focus on ensuring that design for new materials or products includes consideration for sustainability at every stage. This upends the conventional approach to regulatory approval – seeking approval for a new material or product after it has completed development – and prevents wasting resources on bringing unsustainable materials or products to the market.
In nanoscience, researchers suggest modeling a sustainable approach to development after the successful and better established implementation of green chemistry in recent years.
Legislation like the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) act adopted by the European Union in 2006 requires a chemical safety assessment for new chemical products that ensure manufacturing and use do not pose unacceptable health or environmental risks.
The chemical industry’s adoption of circular economy principles is also a good example for nanoscience to follow. These principles seek to “close loops” in a linear production model from material extraction through production and use to disposal. This is achieved by designing for longer life and reusability, improving recycling rates, and finding waste streams that can be connected to manufacturing requirements.
Nanoscience, nanotechnology, and nanomaterials are still very young fields. The immaturity of the fields makes them well suited for green development, however. There is no or very little established orthodoxy to overcome in these fields: new methods are constantly being developed.
These new methods are being developed by scientists who are entirely aware of – and mostly concerned about – the environmental challenges we face. Nanotechnology of the future must be green.