Book review: Eco-friendly and nano smart, in theory

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May 25, 2005 – Most if not all of us are still students when it comes to nanotechnology and its environmental impacts. Relatively few plants and factories manufacture sizable quantities of nanomaterials and nanotechnology-based products, making the possibility of nanoscale byproducts or unintended releases a remote concern. Many of the products that do exist have yet to leach from landfills or percolate into streams and aquifers. The health and ecological consequences of nanotechnology remain undetermined, with most related research still in its infancy.

But that doesn’t mean nanotechnology’s detritus couldn’t or wouldn’t escape into the atmosphere or accumulate in soil or water to inch up the food chain from plants and animals to us. Louis Theodore, a chemical engineering professor at Manhattan College, and Robert G. Kunz, an environmental consultant and former environmental engineering manager at Air Products and Chemicals, argue that nanotechnology will reshape industry in the near future. They offer the textbook “Nanotechnology: Environmental Impli-cations and Solutions” as a way to introduce nanotechnology to the next generation of environmental managers as well as to instill some environmental awareness into nanotechnology professionals.

“One of the key features of this book is that it could serve both academia (students) and industry,” they write in the preface. “Thus, this book offers material not only to individuals with limited technical background but also to those with extensive industrial experience. As such, it can be used as a text … and as a training tool for industry.”

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Kudos to the authors and publisher Wiley for recognizing the need to educate today’s students (and perhaps their professors) about tomorrow’s challenges. The book begins with an even-handed chapter that explains what nanotechnology is, its current and potential impact on industries and reasons for environmental and ethical concerns. Suzanne Shelley, managing editor of Chemical Engineering magazine, provides the synopsis.

Subsequent chapters by the authors give a history of environmental regulations and summarize their current status. Individual chapters cover air, water and solid wastes with a description of the various technologies and techniques used to contain and control pollution. Later chapters address health risk and hazard assessments, risk communication and include a nod toward ethical issues.

At best, nanotechnology is an accoutrement in this textbook. Most chapters acknowledge that nanotechnology probably will raise problems, but say little else. Existing pollution controls will need to be tailored or invented to manage the unusual properties of nanoscale particulates, for instance. How nanomaterials interact with natural materials in the environment or with cells in plants and animals has yet to be determined. Providing accurate but accessible information to the public about something as complex as nanotechnology will require skill and sensitivity.

While these messages may be surprising to students, they are probably not to industry. The value in this book for the nonacademic student is in pages that might be found in many environmental course books. With no nano-specific regulations and few guidelines to steer them, people who work in the realm of nanotechnology may welcome this book’s consolidated presentation of today’s environmental policies and procedures. That may be all they have to go on until the quantum questions get answered or the customized equipment gets built.

The title proclaims environmental implications and solutions, and the promotional material promises an “in-depth exploration of the environmental consequences of nanotechnology.” This is oversell. The solutions don’t appear to exist yet, although awareness-raising is a laudable first step. Acknowledgment of the completed and ongoing research by environmental toxicologist Gunter Oberdorster — stellar as it is — does not constitute an in-depth exploration.

And let’s remember that while most of us remain students in this field, a few companies have skipped a few grades, thanks to successful commercialization of products. How have nanomaterials specialists such as Nanophase Technologies or Hyperion Catalysis dealt with compliance issues? How have the handful of pharmaceutical companies that sell nanotechnology-based drugs addressed concerns about toxicity and other possible risks?

Whatever the answers, we’ll likely need more sophisticated approaches as nanotechnology matures. Let’s hope that textbooks like this help make today’s students tomorrow’s contributors.


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