Nanotechnology needs environmental oversight
EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century, published by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, examines the role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in nanotechnology oversight. The report considers various oversight tools for dealing with nanotechnology and proposes a number of action steps for government, industry, and other stakeholders.
According to the report, the nanotechnology revolution provides an opportunity to institute new kinds of regulation, to create an oversight system for nanotechnology that will be more effective but less intrusive than existing forms of regulation and that will require fewer resources from both the public and private sectors. Nanotechnology can also be a catalyst for the revitalization of EPA, argues author J. Clarence Davies, former EPA assistant administrator for policy, planning and evaluation.
Nanotechnology, termed “the science of manufacturing material at the tiny scale” has moved dramatically from the lab into the marketplace. It has been estimated that, by 2014, 15% of all goods manufactured globally will involve nanotechnology.
Today, the EPA counts more than 450 manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-enabled products in the commercial market and “over 600 raw materials, intermediate components and industrial equipment items” used by nano-manufacturers. Many more are sure to follow, given the large investments in research, development, and commercialization.
Davies asserts that these products open a wide array of questions concerning the risk of nano-materials to workers, consumers, and the environment and provide new challenges to regulatory agencies. An effective regulatory system for nanotechnology requires that the EPA and other players come together and take the necessary steps to evaluate different approaches and move forward with a plan of action, he adds.
This March, the EPA released its Nanotechnology White Paper, examining the science issues and needs associated with nanotechnology.
In the paper, the EPA acknowledges that rapid development of nanotechnology and the increasing production of nano-materials and nano-products present both opportunities and challenges. At this early juncture in nanotechnology’s development, there is an opportunity to develop approaches that will allow production, use, recycling, and eventually disposal of nano-materials in ways that protect human health and safeguard the natural environment, notes the EPA.
However, according to Davies, a review of existing EPA authorities reveals a large number of weaknesses. In particular, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which he deems the only law potentially capable of providing general oversight for nanotechnology, is seen as ‘extremely deficient in many respects’ and needs to be amended. But moving beyond TSCA, virtually every authority that EPA has at its disposal has weaknesses in terms of nanotechnology oversight, he adds.
Davies evaluates the EPA’s record of nanotechnology regulation, and provides 25 specific recommendations for the future.
Among the recommendations made are the following:
- The EPA should launch its proposed voluntary program to collect nanotechnology risk information and should begin immediately to revise the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to better deal with nanotechnology.
- The EPA and industry should create a joint research institute to conduct scientific research on nanotechnology effects.
- The EPA should set up and lead an interagency regulatory coordinating group for nanotechnology oversight.
- Congress should establish a temporary committee in each house to consider options for a nanotechnology oversight mechanism.
- Congress should provide an additional $50 million each year for research on the health and environmental effects of nanotechnology products and processes.
- Congress should remove constraints that limit the EPA’s ability to require that companies collect and share necessary data and other information the agency needs to oversee nanotechnology.
Read EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century here.
Nanotechnology and the Environmental sector
Environmental applications for nanotechnology are numerous: water and wastewater treatment, renewable energy, efficient building materials, remediation technologies, environmental sensors, and many others. Using nano-materials in applications that advance in applications that advance green chemistry and engineering and lead to the development of environmental sensors and remediation technologies may provide new tools for preventing, identifying, and solving environmental problems.
Nanotechnology has the potential to contribute to the viability of water resources, such as through recycling and desalinization. For example, nanotechnology-based flow-through capacitors have been designed that desalinize seawater using one-tenth of the energy of state-of-the-art reverse osmosis and one-hundredth the energy of distillation systems.
There are also possibilities for nanotechnology to contribute to reductions in energy demand through lighter materials for vehicles, materials and geometries that contribute to more effect temperature control, technologies that improve manufacturing process efficiency, materials that increase the efficiency of electrical components and transmission lines, and materials that could contribute to a new generation of fuel cells and a potential hydrogen economy. However, because the manufacture of nano-materials can be energy-intensive, it is important to consider the entire product lifecycle in developing and analyzing these technologies.
Other nanotechnology applications in energy include solid-state lighting, and a new type of highly efficient photovoltaic cell that consists of quantum dots connected by carbon nanotubes. Canada is developing strong research and development capacity in nanotechnology solutions, partly through the new Nanotechnology Institute located in Edmonton.
In the federal government’s recently released Science and Technology strategy, nanotechnologies were identified as important research areas which have the potential to “revolutionize how we work and live and resolve a number of energy and environmental challenges”. The strategy also recognizes the need to address potential risks to human health and the environment in order to capture maximum benefits from this sector, and outlines plans for developing ‘strong science and effective regulation’ in this area.
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To find out what Klean Industries is doing in the Nanotechnology sector please visit Nanocarbon Technology.