How is green nanotechnology being used?

Sowing the Seeds of Sustainable Nanotechnology

Given the environmental havoc wreaked by other seemingly beneficial substances, such as DDT, it is little wonder that we greet strange inventions like carbon nanotubes and quantum dots with skepticism, especially when we know so little about their long-term effects or toxicity [source: Goodman].

Further fueling these concerns are medical findings revealing the harmful effects of certain nanoparticles, such as carbon nanotubes, which cause lung granulomas (spheres of cells associated with disease) when inhaled by rats. The effects of other nanoparticles remain inconclusive -- particularly where humans are concerned -- but studies point to nanosized ingredients in some sunscreens as causing brain damage in mice and rainbow trout through oxidative stress [sources: Karn; Choi; Raloff].

Natural alternatives to nanoscale manufacturing may hold the key to mitigating such problems. In the case of sunscreen, for example, researchers have found a potentially safer nanoparticle in English ivy. The vine's notorious tenacity springs from a yellowish "super glue" exuded by its tendrils, which is composed of nanoparticles four times more effective as a sunblock than titanium dioxide or iron oxide. The particles are biodegradable, water-resistant and only block UV rays [source: Raloff].

Ideally, synthetic nanoscale construction would operate like a cell, using simple, nontoxic substances at room temperature to assemble a product from the ground up and then recycle or efficiently destroy the leftovers. Until such techniques are possible, green researchers are looking increasingly toward using natural processes for inspiration and for safe alternatives to solvents and other hazardous processes.

Researchers have already found ways to use certain bacteria to create nanospheres of selenium, tellurium, zinc selenide and cadmium selenide at room temperature, reducing reliance on high temperatures, pressures and dangerous chemicals [source: NNI, "U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)"].

Natural chemicals, such as the phytochemicals naturally occuring in plants, present another green alternative. Take nanoscale gold, a substance with applications in fuel cells, chemical sensors and biological tools [sources: Tufts; Greenberg]. What once required large amounts of flammable and explosive toxic solvents can now be made using only a gold salt (an electrically neutral compound of gold) and a solution of Darjeeling tea, cinnamon or cumin [sources: Schmidt, Nune et al.].

As exciting as the possibilities are, so far the most inspiring green nanotechnologies remain in the imaginations of researchers. If or when they are developed, they will need economic backing and market support to help them become affordable and achieve widespread use [source: Goodman].

Until then, we can all do our part to make the Earth a more sustainable place -- on every scale.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Alkor Crystal Optics. "Zinc Selenide (ZnSe) Windows and Lenses." (April 18, 2011)
  • American Elements. "Tellurium Nanoparticles." (April 19, 2011)
  • Battersby, Stephen. "Carbon Catalyst Could Herald Cut-Price Fuel Cells." New Scientist. Feb. 6, 2009. (April 19, 2011)
  • Boudreau, R. A. and R. D Rauh. "Chemical Bath Deposition of Thin Film Cadmium Selenide for Photoelectrochemical Cells." Electrochemical Society Journal. Vol. 130. Page 513. Feb. 1983.
  • Bradbury, Michael. "Water Filters Rely on Nanotech." Oct. 14, 2004. (April 19, 2011)
  • Chmiola, J., G. Yushin, Y. Gogotsi, C. Portet, P. Simon and P. L. Taberna. "Anomalous Increase in Carbon Capacitance at Pore Sizes Less Than 1 Nanometer." Science. Vol. 22. September 2006. (April 19, 2011)
  • Choi, Charles Q. "Nano World: Nanoparticle Toxicity Tests." UPI. April 5, 2006. (April 20, 2011)
  • CNSI UCLA (California NanoSystems Institute). "New Nanomaterial Could Improve Therapeutics and Imaging in Cancer Treatment." Aug. 9, 2010. (April 18, 2011)
  • CRC Press. "Review: Green Nanotechnology: Solutions for Sustainability and Energy in the Built Environment." (April 19, 2011)
  • Drexler, Eric. "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology." Anchor. Sept. 16, 1987.
  • Dumé, Belle. "Quantum-Dot Displays Could Outshine Their Rivals." New Scientist. Dec. 10, 2007. (April 20, 2011)
  • Edmonds, Ian and Geoff Smith. "Surface Reflectance and Conversion Efficiency Dependence of Technologies for Mitigating Global Warming." Renewable Energy. Vol. 36, No. 5. Page 1343. May 2011.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Cellulose-based Polymers." 2011. (April 18, 2011)
  • Feder, Barnaby. "Aiding the Environment, a Nanostep at a Time." The New York Times. Nov.7, 2007. (April 22, 2011)
  • Goldman, Lynn and Christine Coussens. "Implications of Nanotechnology for Environmental Health Research." The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. 2005. (April 21, 2011)
  • Goodman, Sara. "Researchers Look to Make 'Messy' Nanotech Production 'Clean and Green'." The New York Times. April 13, 2009. (April 20, 2011)
  • Greenberg, Andrew. "Gold Nanoparticles as Sensors for Electrolytes in Sports Drinks." University of Wisconsin Madison Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center. (April 21, 2011)
  • Karn, Barbara. "Can Nanotechnology Be Green?" Nanonet Lecture to National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), Japan. June 26, 2006. (April 18, 2011)
  • Katti, Kattesh. Curator's Professor of Radiology and Physics, and director, University of Missouri Cancer Nanotechnology Platform. Personal correspondence. April 20, 2011.
  • Katti, Kattesh and Sapna Gopal. "Cinnamon's Alchemy Touch to Nanotech." Planet Earth (India). January 2011.
  • Katti, Kavita, Nripen Chanda, Ravi Shukla, Ajit Zambre, Thilakavathi Suibramanian, Rajesh R. Kulkarni, Raghuraman Kannan and Kattesh V. Kattiab. "Green Nanotechnology from Cumin Phytochemicals: Generation of Biocompatible Gold Nanoparticles." International Journal of Green Nanotechnology: Biomedicine. Vol. 1. Page B39. Jan. 1, 2009. (April 18, 2011)
  • La Mantia, Fabio, Mauro Pasta, Heather D. Deshazer, Bruce E. Logan and Yi Cui. "Batteries for Efficient Energy Extraction from a Water Salinity Difference." Nano Letters. Vol. 11, No. 4. Page 1810. 2011. (April 20, 2011)
  • Lakhtakia, Akhlesh. "Book Review: Green Nanotechnology: Solutions for Sustainability and Energy in the Built Environment." Journal of Nanophotonics. Vol. 5. 2011
  • Lee, Jenny Lauren. "Better Living Through Plasmonics: Mixing Light With Nanotechnology Could Help Treat Cancer and Build Faster Computers." Science News. Nov. 7, 2009. (April 18, 2011)
  • Long, Thomas C., Julianne Tajuba, Preethi Sama, Navid Saleh, Carol Swartz, Joel Parker, Susan Hester, Gregory V. Lowry and Bellina Veronesi. "Nanosize Titanium Dioxide Stimulates Reactive Oxygen Species in Brain Microglia and Damages Neurons in Vitro." Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 115, No. 11. Page 1631. Nov. 2007. (May 4, 2011)
  • Markoff, John. "Start-Up Sells Solar Panels at Lower-Than-Usual Cost." The New York Times. Dec. 18, 2007. (April 21, 2011)
  • Mathiesen, Ben. "Nano-scale Fuel Cells May be Closer Than We Think, Thanks to an Inexpensive New Manufacturing Method." PhysOrg. March 12, 2006. (April 19, 2011)
  • Nanosolar. "Nanosolar." 2011. (April 22, 2011)
  • National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). "Nanotechnology 101." (April 20, 2011)
  • National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). "U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)." 2010. (April 22, 2011)
  • Nune, Satish K., Nripen Chanda, Ravi Shukla, Kavita Katti, Rajesh R. Kulkarni, Subramanian Thilakavathy, Swapna Mekapothula, Raghuraman Kannan and Kattesh V. Katti. "Green Nanotechnology from Tea: Phytochemicals in Tea as Building Blocks for Production of Biocompatible Gold Nanoparticles." Journal of Materials Chemistry. March 11, 2009. (April 19, 2011)
  • Opara, Linus. "Emerging Technological Innovation Triad for Smart Agriculture in the 21st Century. Part I. Prospects and Impacts of Nanotechnology in Agriculture." Agricultural Engineering International: the CIGR Journal of Scientific Research and Development. Invited Overview Paper. Vol. VI. July 2004. (April 22, 2011)
  • Raloff, Janet. "Ivy Nanoparticles Promise Sunblocks and Other Green Products." Science News. June 29, 2010. (April 21, 2011).
  • Schmidt, Karen F. "Green Nanotechnology: It's Easier than You Think." Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. April 2008. (April 18, 2011)
  • Smith, Geoff B. Emeritus Professor in Applied Physics, University of Technology, Sydney. Personal correspondence. April 19, 2011.
  • Smith, Geoff B. "Commentary: Environmental Nanophotonics and Energy." Journal of Nanophotonics. Vol. 5. 2011.
  • Smith, Geoff B. "Nanotechnology for 'Green' Towns and Cities." ENT Magazine. May - June 2010.
  • Tufts University School of Engineering. "Nanoscale Gold Catalysts for the Upgrade of Hydrogen used in Fuel Cells." (April 20, 2011)
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "The U.S. Forest Products Industry and Nanotechnology-the Green Connection." (April 22, 2011)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Nanotechnology: Sensors." March 22, 2011. (April 18, 2011)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Superfund National Priorities List (NPL)." March 24, 2011. (April 19, 2011)
  • Zhang, Wei-xian. "Nanoscale Iron Particles for Environmental Remediation: An Overview." Journal of Nanoparticle Research. Vol. 5. Page 323. 2003.

More to Explore