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Basic Information

What is Nanotechnology?

The term nanotechnology refers to research and technology development conducted with particles and materials in the size range of approximately one to one hundred nanometers in any dimension (i.e., nanoscale). A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, approximately one hundred thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Nanotechnology refers to the intentional engineering or manufacture of nanoscale particles. However, nanoscale materials can also be produced unintentionally, from various human and natural processes (e.g., particulates produced from fuel combustion, volcanic ash, viruses).

Nanotechnology holds great promise for creating new materials with enhanced properties and attributes. For example, greater catalytic efficiency, increased electrical conductivity, and improved hardness and strength, derive from the larger surface area per unit of volume of nanoscale materials as well as special physical properties (i.e., quantum effects) that occur at nanoscale dimensions.

Nanoscale materials are already being used or tested in a wide range of products such as sunscreens, composites, medical and electronic devices, and chemical catalysts.

Nanotechnology Applications for the Environment

Nanoscale materials have potential beneficial applications for future environmental remediation or as detectors. For example, nanosized cerium oxide has been developed to decrease diesel emissions, and iron nanoparticles can remove contaminants from soil and ground water. Nanosized sensors hold promise for improved detection and tracking of contaminants in the environment.

In these and other ways, nanotechnology presents an opportunity to improve how we measure, monitor, manage, and reduce contaminants in the environment. EPA is interested in the potential benefits of nanotechnology and charged with regulating its disposal. A challenge for environmental protection is to help fully realize the societal benefits nanotechnology while identifying and minimizing any adverse impacts to humans or ecosystems from exposure to nanoscale materials.

EPA is working to gain a better understanding of how to best apply nanotechnology for pollution prevention in current manufacturing processes and in the manufacture of new nanoscale materials, as well as in environmental detection, monitoring, and clean-up of waste sites. This understanding will come from scientific information gathered by environmental research and development activities conducted by government agencies, academia, and the private sector.

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