Environment - Overview - About the Sector - Text

Environment can be defined[1] as the totality of all the external conditions affecting the life, development and survival of an organism. It consists of air, water and soil, which deliver vital environmental functions and ecosystem services that support life on Earth. Each organism interacts with and has an influence on its environment, including – or in particular - humans. Environmental functions and ecosystem services that are essential for social well-being and economic welfare are under threat from over-exploitation and pollution. The European Environment Agency[2] (EEA) lists as environmental topics air quality, biodiversity, chemicals, climate change, environmental health, land use, natural resources, noise, soil, waste and material resources and water.

According to the EEA’s State of the Environment Report (SOER, 2015) new technologies, such as nano-, bio-, and information and communication technologies, are radically transforming the world. Such technologies can contribute to environmental monitoring, prevention and remediation of environmental damage but also bring potential risks and uncertainties[3]. This relates to the fact that nanomaterials, in particular those that are engineered[4], have properties that are not yet fully understood. Information included here includes uses of nanotechnology for the environment (to reduce impact) and in the environment (its potential risks, uncertainties). On the one hand, nanotechnology is one of the emerging technologies that can be applied in the observation of environmental phenomena, help prevent or remediate environmental degradation (direct effect) or lead to reduced energy and resource consumption (indirect effect). On the other hand, introducing new substances, such as nanomaterials, to the environment may have unknown environmental and health effects (environmental health and safety). Given these uncertainties and based on an assessment of cases where early warnings were ignored, the EEA sees the “precautionary principle” as the appropriate policy approach for nanotechnology. Below are some examples of the applications of nanotechnology.

Water pollution and scarcity are environmental problems which can disrupt ecosystems and seriously affect the health of humans and other species. Nanotechnology offers solutions to deal with oil spills; remove bacteria, radioactive materials; desalination of water; decompose organic molecules and remove arsenic from water.

The poor air quality across Europe has made it a political priority. Nanotechnology can play a role in the remediation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Nanotechnology enables the removal of VOCs from the air, for example using a catalyst of porous manganese oxide in which gold nanoparticles have been embedded. To prevent or reduce the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, nanotechnology can trap CO2 using crystals with nano-pores, convert waste carbon dioxide into methanol fuel (e.g. from emissions from power plants) and remove carbon dioxide from industrial chimney outflow using nanostructured membranes (including those using carbon nanotubes). Cobalt-platinum nano-catalysts or carbon nanotubes removes nitrogen oxides (NOx) from smoke or catalyses waste gas pollutants (from car exhausts and industrial plants) into harmless gases.

Soil contamination affects plant growth and the quality of groundwater used for human consumption. Soil remediation therefore also has a beneficial effect on water quality. Nanotechnology can be used to extract heavy metals and organic compounds from soil and can clean groundwater by removing pollutants such as pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Nanomaterials for soil remediation are, for example, nanoclays, geo-polymers, nano-calcium peroxide and nano-coated hydrophobic sand.

Sensors based on nanotechnology have the potential to reduce wastage of resources (such as energy and raw materials) and to indicate the quality of the environment (air, water and soil). Nanoparticle-based biosensors are potential tools for rapid, specific and highly sensitive detection, making it possible to sense very small concentrations of contaminant.

The data included here relate to the knowledge base of publications, projects, patents and the organisations involved in nanotechnology and environment. Also addressed is the economic importance of nanotechnology in terms of products and markets. Finally, information on regulation and standards, environmental health and safety (EHS) is included.

Given that the environment covers all areas of human activity, there is some overlap with other economic sectors considered within this NanoData project, for example, transport, health, energy and ICT.

[1] https://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=813

[2] http://www.eea.europa.eu/. The European Environment Agency is an agency of the European Union with currently 33 member countries (28 EU countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey).

[3] The European environment | State and outlook 2015; , box 2.1, p. 37.

[4] EEA, Late Lessons Vol II, chapter 22 on Nanotechnology.http://www.eea.europa.eu/soer-2015/synthesis/report/action-download-pdf-old/view New nanomaterials may be formed by altering the shape, size and form of existing materials at the nanoscale, or nanomaterials with new properties may be developed by combining two or more nanoscale materials or chemicals.