Comment Physics World  April 2019

Greening the nano-landscape

Eco-friendly nanotech. (The Sixth Element)

The sometime philosopher (and full-time cartoon character) Homer Simpson famously called alcohol “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”. I thought of Simpson’s words again as I was preparing this Physics World Focus on Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials. The reason, you’ll be relieved to hear, is not that the present state of the nanoworld has driven me to drink. Instead, it has to do with the way nanotechnology has, historically, been viewed as both environmental saviour and ecological threat.

The early 2000s offer a case in point. This was a time of great optimism within the field, with many practitioners convinced that nanotechnology would, in the words of nanotech entrepreneur Tim Harper, solve “the interlinked problems of clean energy, climate change and human happiness at a stroke”. However, the same era also saw concerns about safety, prompted by fears that the environmental effects of nanoparticles were not well-understood. It was around this time that one of the physicists at Durham University, where I was then a PhD student, posted a headline on his office door proclaiming that nanotechnology was as safe as riding a bicycle – a comparison which, to this day, leaves me scratching my head.

History records that neither the nano-miracle nor the nano-apocalypse came to pass. Instead, today’s nanoscience community – helped along by funding from various sources – is busy with such worthwhile tasks as developing nanoparticles for bioimaging, “taming” complex oxides and creating robust new devices. Many of these developments, including novel methods of water purification and graphene-based anti-corrosion coatings, will have a direct, positive effect on the natural world.

Scientists also know far more about how nanomaterials behave “in the wild” than they did 20 years ago. Unfortunately, as Physics World’s materials-science editor, Anna Demming, reports, the news is not all good. As the production of nanomaterials ramps up, the need for a cleaner, greener nanoscience will only become more pressing. If nanotechnology is to reduce the planet’s woes, rather than add to them, environmental considerations will need to play a more central role in its future.