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
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Nanotechnology policy making – mandatory tools

Posted: Apr 3rd, 2013  By Michael Berger. Copyright © Nanowerk

Nanotechnology policy making – mandatory tools

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8(Nanowerk Spotlight) Governments are charged with  determining whether chemical substances, and products that include those  substances, can be used without adversely affecting humans and other living  beings. Science helps inform policy decisions by providing information on the  benefits and drawbacks of a technology or a product of that technology. So much  for the theory.

Currently, there are significant limitations in the  environmental, health and safety (EHS) data available for nanomaterials.  Furthermore, although a wide variety of test methods and guidance for regulatory  testing of bulk chemicals is available, a number of them will need significant  modification before being applicable to nanomaterials. Complicating things, science is quite divided on how to assess  nanotechnology materials and applications.

Consequently, as the public  discussion about the regulation of nanotechnology in general, and nanomaterials  in particular, heats up, emerging opinions on the applicability of existing  regulation differ substantially (read more: “Regulating  nanotechnology – how adequate is current regulation?”) and so do views on  which regulatory options best address the current lack of information about  environment, health and safety risks of nanomaterials, as well as the regulatory  uncertainty and concerns expressed by the politicians, members of the public and  industry, and investors (read more in our previous Nanowerk Spotlight: “Science  policy considerations for responsible nanotechnology decisions”).

A new, two-part survey in Global Policy (“The Challenges of Nanotechnology Policy Making PART 1. Discussing  Mandatory Frameworks” and “The Challenges of Nanotechnology Policy Making PART  2. Discussing Voluntary Frameworks and Options”), compiled by Claire  Auplat, a professor at the Novancia Business School, Paris, France, outlines  the different frameworks policy makers have developed. The first part of the  survey, which we are covering today in this Nanowerk Spotlight,  introduces nanotechnology policy making and the reasons for its complexity, and  offers a panorama of the set of mandatory tools that are currently  available to regulate nanotechnologies.

The second part, which will appear in  our Spotlight tomorrow, provides an outlook of the set of voluntary tools  that coexist with the mandatory ones. First, let’s look at the typology involved: Mandatory or voluntary regulationAs we will see, In nanotechnology, there are many initiatives of  voluntary regulation. These constitute new layers of regulation that  stakeholders decide to add to the mandatory ones which they must comply with. Geographic level of regulationRegulation happens at different levels, from the local one to  the international one.

The terms ‘international’, ‘regional’, ‘national’ and ‘local’ usually refer to the bodies which pass the said regulations, not to the  areas covered by them. The geographic scope of some regulations goes beyond that  of the body that passed them. To continue with the example of the EU regulation,  when a specific law targets the products or substances manufactured or imported  in the EU, its scope may in effect be much larger since it may impact producers  globally. The targets of regulationRegulation has two broad targets, either the products or  substances themselves, or those exposed to them, like people or the environment.  The distinction is not always clear-cut, but in the case of nanotechnology  regulation there is a trend to move from the former to the latter.

The following is a list of existing tools of mandatory  nanotechnology governance:

REACH, the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and  Restriction of Chemical Substances – EC 1907/2006REACH is the European Community Regulation on  chemicals and their safe use (EC 1907/2006). It deals with the Registration,  Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances. The law  entered into force on 1 June 2007.

REACH is a general framework and it does not apply specifically  to nano substances. Critics of the law say that because most nano substances are  so small, they are produced in quantities that are below one tonne per year,  which means that they go unregulated. REACH can in fact apply to substances produced or imported in  volumes below 1 tonne per year if they are considered to be of very high  concern. This means in effect that risks from certain nano scale substances  could be addressed through REACH if they were identified as being ‘substances of  very high concern’ as defined in Article 57, for example as being persistent,  bio accumulative and toxic (PBT) substances. Novel food regulation, regulation EC 258 /  97-1997This European regulation laid out rules for the  authorisation of ‘novel’ foods.

According to a European Parliament press release of March 2011 the use of  nanotechnology in food production, for example as an antibacterial agent, or to  alter flavour or color is growing and the European Parliament called for further  checks to be developed to adequately assess the safety of such foods. They also  wanted food containing nano ingredients to be labelled. However, due to a  failure to reach agreement on the new rules ‘there will continue to be no  special measures regarding nanomaterials in food’ the EP statement said.

Regulation (EC) no 1223 / 2009 of the European  Parliament and of the council of 30 November 2009 on cosmetic  products.  This law – the first international law  specifically designed for nanotechnologies – includes a review of the safety of  nanomaterials and will take effect in July 2013, with gradual implementation  started in December 2010. All cosmetic products will be subject to a safety  assessment and to a premarket notification and approval procedure.

This law specifically sayes: “The Regulation prohibits the use  of substances recognised as carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction  (classified as CMR), apart from in exceptional cases. It provides for a high  level of protection of human health where nanomaterials are used in cosmetic  products.” The regulation also requires traceability of a cosmetic product  throughout the whole supply chain, as well as clear labelling including the name  and address of the responsible person, and the presence of all ingredients  containing nanomaterials, with their names followed by (nano).

Toxic substances control act inventory status of carbon  nanotubes. Generally speaking, the US Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)  regulates all chemical substances. However, since the passing of the TSCA Inventory Status of Carbon Nanotubes in 2008, some  nanomaterials have been considered as specific chemical substances and are  therefore subject to special regulation.

Federal insecticide, fungicide, and rodenticide  act. Under this U.S. federal regulation, all pesticides  distributed or sold in the U.S. must be registered by the Environmental  Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA ruled in 2006 that the Samsung silver  ion generating washing machine, which released nano silver ions into wash  water, was subject to registration requirements under FIFRA because it  incorporated a substance intended to prevent, destroy or mitigate pests, and was  therefore considered a pesticide.

DTSC chemical call in: carbon nanotubes, quantum dots,  nanosilver,  nano cerium oxide, nano titanium dioxide, and nano zinc  oxide. California law authorizes the Department of Toxic Substances  Control to request information regarding analytical test methods, fate and  transport in the environment, and other relevant information about specified  chemicals. The Department has conducted two chemical information call-ins. In 2010,  Round One sought information on carbon nanotubes.  In 2011, Round Two sought  information on quantum dots, nanosilver, nano zero valent iron, nanocerium  oxide, nanotitanium dioxide, and nanozinc oxide.  Visit Round One and Round Two for the responses from manufacturers  and importers of these chemical substances.

The manufactured nano scale health and safety ordinance.  Section 15.12.040 Berkeley city council ordinance.  This municipal ordinance was passed in December  2006 by the city council of Berkeley, CA, and was the first case in the world of  mandatory regulation specifically targeted at nanotechnologies. It amended  existing health and safety rules to demand a full toxicological report from all  facilities manufacturing nanoparticles.

NIOSH Current Intelligence Bulletin (CIB) 63 on  occupational exposure to titanium dioxide. This NIOSH CIB, based on NIOSH’s assessment of  the current available scientific information about this widely used material, 1)  reviews the animal and human data relevant to assessing the carcinogenicity and  other adverse health effects of TiO2; 2) provides  a quantitative risk assessment using dose-response information from the rat and  human lung dosimetry modeling and recommended occupational exposure limits for  fine and ultrafine (including engineered nanoscale) TiO2; and 3) describes exposure monitoring techniques,  exposure control strategies, and research needs. NIOSH recommendations are nonbinding, and should therefore be  listed under the voluntary initiatives. However, they can be seen as an initial  step to mandatory regulation enacted by OSHA, which is why CIB 63 was considered  a landmark in nanotechnology regulation.

French code de l’environnement, Livre V, Titre II,  Chapitre III, (articles l523-1 to l523-5). According to this text, manufacturers, importers  or distributers of nanoparticulates must inform relevant authorities, and  provide information about the substances involved. The information relates to  intended use of substance, quantities involved, identity of the professional  users, and danger relative to exposure in terms of health or of environmental  risks. The data provided can be made available to the public.

The code states  that national interest may lead to a request to opt out of REACH regulation. Auplat concludes that there is currently no strong backbone to  global nanotechnology policy making. “On the one hand, there are various pieces  of regulation which are disconnected and seem to emerge more or less in an ad  hoc way. On the other hand, at the international level, the position of large  international organizations like the EU is not stable: they have until now not  favoured specific regulation of nanotechnologies considering that existing  frameworks were sufficient, and they seem to be changing their minds.”

By Michael Berger. Copyright © Nanowerk

Read more: http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=29822.php#.UVxq-YcGT50.twitter#ixzz2PW0a2l1u