Nanomaterials have been making a difference in healthcare, electronics and many other fields. They are now doing so in sustainability too. From improved solar cells to lightweight batteries and water purification solutions, they provide unique material properties that allow us to better address major sustainability challenges.
These new materials have often created unforeseen environmental and social impacts, however. A study published in Nature Nanotechnology suggests a better way forward, providing a framework to assess the environmental performance of different nanomaterials throughout the design process.
As functional properties and cost minimization are major concerns, environmental performance often goes unnoticed until a product reaches the market and adverse effects suddenly start to pop up. A lack of effective assessment frameworks for nanomaterial sustainability leaves no good choice for replacement either, often leading to “regrettable substitutions.” According to researchers, this can change though obtaining timely and accurate information on the materials at hand.
Julie Zimmerman, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering and one of the authors, explains: “As a researcher, if I have limited resources for research and development, I don’t want to spend it on something that’s not going to be viable due to its effects on human health.” He adds: “I want to know now, before I develop that product.”
To help designers solve the issue, researchers reviewed the available literature and came out with a database on the basic properties and environmental sustainability of nanomaterials. The database includes information on their size, shape, toxicity, cumulative energy demand and antimicrobial activity scores. It is possible to adapt the database for additional carbon footprint or water footprint analyses, as well as other particular needs.
Researchers adapted Michael Ashby’s materials selection chart to a contemporary nanomaterial palette. This allows for an easy visual comparison of properties like density and strength, making the tool appeal for a wide range of stakeholders. It may also prove useful to researchers, allowing them to consider diverse potential properties of materials before getting far into the development process. Meanwhile, they can contribute to the database with their own findings.
According to Desiree Plata, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University, engineers crave this kind of information. “They want to build materials that solve major crises of our time, like access to food and water and sustainable energy,” the expert says. “The problem is they have no way to assess that sustainability in a quick and easy fashion. The article published today seeks to overcome that challenge and pave the way for sustainable nanotechnologies.”
And as nanomaterials become more sustainable by design, we can hope for more win-win solutions by minimizing the negative impacts of technology.