Researchers Propose Method to Choose More Sustainable Nanomaterials

From the May 1, 2018 edition of Science Daily:  “Engineered nanomaterials hold great promise for medicine, electronics, water treatment, and other fields. But when the materials are designed without critical information about environmental impacts at the start of the process, their long-term effects could undermine those advances. A team of researchers hopes to change that.

In a study published in Nature Nanotechnology, Yale researchers outline a strategy to give materials designers the tools they need to make the necessary assessments efficiently and at the beginning of the design process. Engineers traditionally focus on the function and cost of their products. Without the information to consider long-term environmental impacts, though, it is difficult to predict adverse effects. That lack of information means that unintended consequences often go unnoticed until long after the product has been commercialized. This can lead to hastily replacing the material with another that proves to have equally bad, or even worse, effects. Having materials property information at the start of the design process could change that pattern. “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,” said Julie Zimmerman, professor of chemical & environmental engineering and co-senior author of the study. “I want to know now, before I develop that product.” To that end, the researchers have developed a database that serves as a screening tool for environmentally sustainable material selection. It’s a chart that lists nanomaterials and assesses each for properties such as size, shape, and such performance characteristics as toxicity and antimicrobial activity. Mark Falinski, a PhD student and lead author of the study, said this information would allow researchers to weigh the different effects of the material before actually developing it.”

The database created by the research team also allows other researchers to enter information to improve the material selection framework. It includes engineered nanomaterials and conventional alternatives with human health and environmental metrics for all materials.

The research team includes scientists affiliated with Yale University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, City University of Hong Kong, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Image of three different illustrations of nanoscale materials: white crystals, pyramidal dark crystals joined together, and a tubular mesh-like formation of molecules
Researchers propose a new method for nanomaterial selection that incorporates environmental and functional performance, as well as cost. Credit: Steve Geringer.

Read the full story in Science Daily at

Read the referenced article in Nature Nanotechnology at  [Mark M. Falinski, Desiree L. Plata, Shauhrat S. Chopra, Thomas L. Theis, Leanne M. Gilbertson, Julie B. Zimmerman. A framework for sustainable nanomaterial selection and design based on performance, hazard, and economic considerationsNature Nanotechnology, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41565-018-0120-4]

To learn more about the potential environmental and health impacts of nanotechnology, see the following:

New on the SEI Website: Spring 2015

Check out the following updates and resources added this spring on the Sustainable Electronics Initiative web site. If you have any questions, or would like to make suggestions for additions to the SEI site, please contact Joy Scrogum. Don’t forget to subscribe to the SEI Blog and follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay current with sustainable electronics issues!

New “Lessons” Page:

We’ve added a “Lessons” page to the “Education” section of our site for interactive lessons on various sustainable electronics topics. Check out “The Secret Life of Electronics” to explore some of the environmental and social impacts of electronic products.

SEI Publications:

Teaching Sustainability with Electronics. January 2015.

Updates to Law & Policy pages:

A link to the controversial Executive Order 13693 (Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade) has been added to the U.S. Federal Legislation page. Effective March 19, 2015, this executive order is notable in its lack of any mention of the EPEAT registry tied to federal procurement preferences. For nearly a decade prior, 95% of electronics purchased by federal agencies were required to be EPEAT registered. The omission was met with criticism and concern from environmental and sustainability advocates, but the Green Electronics Council, which administers the EPEAT registry, has expressed confidence that federal agencies will continue to use the registry as a purchasing tool, since doing so is not precluded by the new executive order. UPDATE, 6/18/15: Implementation instructions for this Executive Order, dated June 10, 2015, make it clear that EPEAT is the only existing tool to achieve the electronic stewardship mandates of the order. This allays the fears of those who thought the omission of direct mention of EPEAT in the order would lead to weakening or failure as a tool for environmentally preferable purchasing. For more information, see the Resource Recycling article Federal government sticks with EPEAT after all.

A link to IL HB 1455 was added under “Pending State & Local Legislation” on the U.S. State & Local Legislation page. This bill has passed the state House and Senate and is awaiting the signature of Governor Bruce Rauner. Synopsis As Introduced: “Amends the Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act. Provides that a manufacturer may count the total weight of a cathode ray tube device, prior to processing, towards its goal under this Section if all recyclable components are removed from the device and the cathode ray tube glass is managed in a manner that complies with all Illinois Environmental Protection Agency regulations for handling, treatment, and disposition of cathode ray tubes. Provides that, for specified categories of electronic devices, each manufacturer shall recycle or reuse at least 80% (was at least 50%) of the total weight of the electronic devices that the manufacturer sold in that category in Illinois during the calendar year 2 years before the applicable program year. Provides that a registered recycler or a refurbisher of CEDs and EEDs for a manufacturer obligated to meet goals may not charge individual consumers or units of local government acting as collectors a fee to recycle or refurbish CEDs and EEDs, unless the recycler or refurbisher provides (i) a financial incentive, such as a coupon, that is of greater or equal value to the fee being charged or (ii) premium service, such as curbside collection, home pick-up, drop-off locations, or a similar methods of collection. Provides that, in program year 2015, and each year thereafter, if the total weight of CEDs and EEDs recycled or processed for reuse by the manufacturer is less than 100% of the manufacturer’s individual recycling or reuse goal set forth in a specified provision of the Act, the manufacturer shall pay a penalty equal to the product of (i) $0.70 per pound; multiplied by (ii) the difference between the manufacturer’s individual recycling or reuse goal and the total weight of CEDs and EEDs recycled or processed for reuse by the manufacturer during the program year. Effective immediately.”

A link to the text of the Minnesota bill HF 1412 was also added under “Pending State & Local Legislation” on the U.S. State & Local Legislation page. This bill, introduced by Rep. Frank Hornstein on March 4, 2015, would change the determination of e-scrap collection requirements for manufacturers. Currently, manufacturers fund the MN electronics recycling program with contributions based on volume of equipment sold in the state annually. According to the Product Stewardship Institute, the new bill would ‘change the state’s reuse and recycling goals every year in response to changing weights and quantities of electronic products sold and recycled. [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] will publish a new recycling goal each year based on the sum of the average weight of the electronic devices collected for recycling in the preceding two years.’ The bill additionally proposes to broaden the state’s electronics disposal ban, which currently only bans CRTs from landfills. If passed, the amended disposal ban would include products such as cellphones, video game consoles and computers and computer peripherals.

A few of the new items in the SEI Resource Compilations. (Items are added all the time, so check the web site often.):

Redefining scope: the true environmental impact of smartphones: The aim of this study is to explore the literature surrounding the environmental impact of mobile phones and the implications of moving from the current business model of selling, using and discarding phones to a product service system based upon a cloud service. The exploration of the impacts relating to this shift and subsequent change in scope is explored in relation to the life cycle profile of a typical smartphone.

MeterHero: MeterHero is a sustainability exchange where you can offset your water and energy use by purchasing savings from local homes, schools, and buildings. People who conserve earn income and help save the planet. The MeterHero dashboard allows users to track their water, electric and gas usage, and money earned by reducing usage.

Carbon Nanotubes in Electronics: Background and Discussion for Waste-Handling Strategies: Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are increasingly being used in electronics products. CNTs have unique chemical and nanotoxicological properties, which are potentially dangerous to public health and the environment. This report presents the most recent findings of CNTs’ toxicity and discusses aspects related to incineration, recycling and potential remediation strategies including chemical and biological remediation possibilities. Our analysis shows that recycling CNTs may be challenging given their physiochemical properties and that available strategies such as power-gasification methods, biological degradation and chemical degradation may need to be combined with pre-handling routines for hazardous materials. The discussion provides the background knowledge for legislative measures concerning specialized waste handling and recycling procedures/facilities for electronics products containing CNTs.

Precarious Promise: A Case Study of Engineered Carbon NanotubesIn just over two decades since the discovery of carbon nanotubes, technologies relying on engineered CNTs have developed at warp speed. Current and anticipated uses of engineered CNTs are numerous and diverse: sporting equipment, solar cells, wind turbines, disk drives, batteries, antifouling paints for boats, flame retardants, life-saving medical devices, drug delivery technologies, and many more. Some have suggested that every  feature of life as we know it is or will be impacted by the discovery and use of CNTs. Despite uncertainty about how these entirely new materials may affect living systems, CNTs have largely been a case of “forget precaution, get to production.” Concern for human health and the environment has been overwhelmed by the promise of profits and progress. Financial support for nanomaterial research and commercial development has vastly outpaced funding of environmental health and safety and sustainable design research on these materials. And with limited understanding of how these structures — small enough to penetrate cells — will interact with humans and other life forms, use of CNTs is proliferating with few systems in place to protect people or the environment. Warning signs have emerged, however. CNTs share important physical characteristics with ultrafine air pollution particles as well as with asbestos fibers — both recognized as seriously toxic. Mounting numbers of toxicological studies now demonstrate irreversible health effects in laboratory animals, but it is unclear whether similar effects have occurred in humans exposed at work or through environmental releases. The growing literature on toxic effects of CNTs also make clear that the environmental and human health impacts may vary radically, depending on specific chemical and physical characteristics of the engineered nanomaterial. While some CNTs appear to be highly hazardous, it remains possible that others may pose little threat. Is it possible to gain the benefits of CNTs with minimal risk by ensuring the use of the safest alternatives for a particular application?  (PDF Format; Length: 36 pages)