Water and the Promise of Nanotechnology

Water report60_l(Nanowerk Spotlight) Freshwater looks like it will  become the oil of the 21st century – scarce, expensive and fought over. While  over 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, most of it is  unusable for human consumption.

According to the Government of Canada’s  Environment Department (take a look at their Freshwater Website – a great resource for facts and all kinds of aspects about water), freshwater  lakes, rivers and underground aquifers represent only 2.5 per cent of the  world’s total freshwater supply. Unfortunately, in addition to being scarce,  freshwater is also very unevenly distributed.

The United Nations has compared  water consumption with its availability and has predicted that by the middle of  this century between 2 billion and 7 billion people will be faced with water  scarcity. It gets worse: In the developing countries, 80 per cent of illnesses  are water-related. Due to the shortage of safe drinking water in much of the  world, there are 3.3 million deaths every year from diarrheal diseases caused  by E. coli, salmonella and cholera bacterial infections, and from  parasites and viral pathogens. In fact, between 1990 and 2000, more children  died of diarrhea than all the people killed in armed conflicts since the Second  World War.

The use of nanotechnologies in four key water industry segments –  monitoring, desalinization, purification and wastewater treatment – could play a  large role in averting the coming water crisis. But hoping that the ‘magic’ of  nanotechnology will solve all water problems is naive – the basic problems of  accessibility to technologies, affordability, and fair distribution still need  to be solved.

water drop

Unlike with so many other issues that seem to concern only  Third World countries, people in the developed world can’t afford to sit back  and take a hands-off approach to this problem. The impact of water shortage goes  far beyond widespread diseases in the developing world. In the past 15 years,  global water consumption has risen at more than double the rate of population  growth, due in part to industrial demand.
For example, it takes 300 liters of  water to produce 1 kilogram of paper, and 215,000 liters to produce 1 metric ton  of steel. Changes in our diet are also driving water consumption; it takes  15,000 tons of water to produce a ton of beef, while it only requires 1,000 tons  of water for a ton of grain (these numbers are from the Canadian Freshwater  website, mentioned above).

So nanotechnologies, or technology in general, should not be  seen as a cure all: a lot of problems arise from the way we chose to live (in  the rich countries, where we have a choice) and the preferences we set as  politicians, producers and consumers.   It is also important to note that many conventional technologies  already exist that effectively remove bacteria, viruses, coliforms, and other  contaminants from water; water desalination is a proven technology; and  wastewater treatment plants do exist.

Some of these solutions are expensive;  some are affordable and can be produced locally. With enough political will, a  lot of funding, and smart and sustained logistical efforts all these  technologies could be made available where needed.

Saudia Arabia, for instance,  produces 70 per cent of its drinking water from desalination plants (no  nanotechnology involved). However, one industrial-scale plant costs roughly one  billion dollars and one cubic meter of water costs a bit over $1 to produce.

As for water purification, a review of the literature suggests  that several technical challenges remain with regards to the cost and  effectiveness of removal of certain contaminants in a manner that meets the  needs of people in developing countries. That’s where nanotechnology comes in  because it could increase the effectiveness of existing water treatment  solutions and, so claim the proponents, be made available at a much lower cost. 

There is a good discussion of these issues in the Meridian Institute‘s Background Paper for the International Workshop on  Nanotechnology, Water, and Development (the event took place in October 2006 in  Chennai, India). This report is especially helpful to understand what the  conventional water treatment technologies are and where nanotechnology-based  technologies could improve upon them. In case you want to read up on this issue,  there is another good report from Meridian that looks especially at water  filtration nanotechnologies (Nanotechnology, Water, and Development)

It is misleading, though, to suggest that nanotechnologies will  magically change this picture anytime soon. Almost all proponents of  nanotechnology-based water treatment technologies claim that nanotech will make  it more affordable. That may be the case some time in the future. You need to  make a big leap of faith to buy this argument today.

Firstly, most  nanotechnology-based applications are still in the lab or have barely made it to  the fab. None of them has been scaled up to industrial levels yet – a major  prerequisite to bring prices down – and by looking around at what nanotech  products are commercially available it appears that some even claim a price  premium.

Not a single product out there advertises to be cheaper because it is  nanotechnology-enabled.   Let’s also be clear that all nanotechnology applications  proposed for water applications today are evolutionary, i.e. they will offer  some improvements over existing devices and applications, not a revolutionary  new way of doing things.

In case you only vaguely remember your Economics 101  class, here is how profit-oriented companies operate – they will introduce new  materials or technologies in their products or production processes for  basically one of two reasons: 1) the new technology allows the company to offer  an improved product which could be sold at a higher price (which could, but  doesn’t have to, result in a higher margin, depending to what degree production  costs rise) and/or gives it a performance advantage over the competition; 2) the  new technology allows the company to reduce its production costs (sometimes even  while improving product quality and features at the same time), in which case it  could offer the product at the same price and achieve a higher margin, or, if  competition is tough, reduce its price.  

Reason one clearly is not an option for improving water quality  around the globe because it would make things even more expensive than they are  today. That leaves reason two: companies need an economic incentive to introduce  nanotechnology in their applications. As with all other areas (especially in  energy) this industrial scale-up needs to happen for more effective  nanotechnology-enabled products, that could help solve real problems, to hit the  market en masse (and not just make your car’s paint more scratch resistant or  you golf ball fly straighter).

“Before these technologies can make the leap from the laboratory  to the mass market, they will need to clear the hurdles of public acceptance and  economic feasibility” says Lynn Foster, the Emerging Technologies Director of  Greenberg Traurig and co-author of a recent article in Nanotechnology Law &  Business (“Nanotechnology in the Water Industry”). ”

Many of these  applications are still in their infancy and will require further testing to  prove their reliability. Furthermore, implementing many of these technologies  will require additional capital investment by existing water treatment centers  to upgrade equipment and train personnel. However, though the proponents of  nanotechnology face a challenge in convincing private and public entities to  incur the up-front costs of adopting these new water purification technologies,  nanotechnology holds out the promise of long-term benefits in the form of  decreased costs of purifying the world’s water supplies and the enormous savings  that would accompany reliable access to potable water in those areas of the  world that currently suffer from lack of adequate drinking water and basic  sanitation services.”

A very good example of how tricky the introduction of new  technologies is, just look at your own personal behavior. You can buy  nanotechnology-based water filters for your home today, for instance Brita  filters which you just screw onto your kitchen tap. That gives you perfectly  good, safe and fine-tasting drinking water. Chances are, though, that your  fridge is stocked with bottled water; an alternative that, although you couldn’t  taste the difference to filtered tap water, is more expensive and ecologically  damaging.

Could it be that you are influenced by the ubiquitous ads for the  oh-so-healthy products of the bottled water industry? If you bought Brita and  other companies’ filters you would support companies like Argonide that push  nanotechnology in their products. If you buy bottled water you support companies  like Coca Cola. Brita, Argonide et. al. can’t afford the huge advertising  budgets of the food giants but an informed consumer shouldn’t be misled by  advertising anyway (nice theory…).

Let’s just say we agree that water filters  are a better choice than plastic bottles.  What then will it take for a consumer  society to change its behavior and switch to the beneficial technology? Which in  turn would bring the price of this technology down and help spread its reach.

In conclusion, there are three points to make. The first is that  conventional technology and political will today could solve a lot, if not all,  of the water problems the world is facing. At considerable cost. The second is  that nanotechnologies, in theory, could make it easier to solve these problems  if the hurdle of commercialization can be overcome; because as long as  nanotechnology-enabled products are more expensive than their non-nanotech  alternatives, we’ll face the some problems that we already are having today.

And  lastly, no matter how promising a new technology is, if entrenched economic  interests have different goals, it is hard to reap the benefits of the new.

By Michael Berger, Copyright Nanowerk LLC
Read more: http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=2372.php#ixzz2jt9w7tUD

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