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Nanobiotechnology July 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Lucy Young

Plasmonic Photocatalysis

By First Last
Biosentence

Why is this topic significant?

Photocatalytic technology potentially has positive benefits for the environment through a number of applications. Research has demonstrated that nanoparticles can significantly improve photocatalytic reactions. A new study has discovered the reason for the improvement and has potential for developing the technology further.

Description

Photocatalysis is the acceleration by a catalyst of a light-driven reaction. It has found some use in commercial applications. For example, self-cleaning glass uses titanium dioxide nanoparticles to combine with ultraviolet light to trap various air pollutants. The nanoparticles absorb the light energy and use it to oxidize pollutant molecules. In recent years, researchers have demonstrated how plasmonic photocatalysis can vastly improve photocatalytic efficiency. Plasmonics is the study of how free electrons interact with the electromagnetic spectrum. Light that passes over free electrons in metal can cause surface plasmon resonance to form. Recently, metallic nanoparticles embedded into metal-oxide-semiconductor microspheres have shown great promise as highly effective photocatalysts. The reason for their effectiveness, however, has been unclear. To understand the principles behind the system, researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore used computer modeling to investigate the interaction of light with a microsphere that had a single embedded metallic nanoparticle. The researchers found that optical reflection and refraction at the surface interface between the microsphere and the catalytic medium in which it sits causes an interference pattern within the microsphere. The interference pattern enhances the absorption of the light by the nanoparticle. The combination could absorb light across the entire visible spectrum.

Implications

Understanding of how these plasmonic photocatalysts work will help to advance research and increase the likelihood of commercialization. The A*STAR researchers have already made models that demonstrate more improved systems than that of the single-nanoparticle-embedded microsphere. Improvements in the effectiveness of photocatalysis could help to make the technology commercially more viable. A few small companies market products—such as antipollutant paint—with photocatalytic properties. However, with significant improvements in the technology, plasmonic photocatalysts could affect a variety of industries.

Impacts/Disruptions

Plasmonic photocatalysts could play a part in improving artificial photosynthesis, which is an important area of development for the production of renewable energy and the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Another impact for the energy sector could come from photocatalytic water splitting—a process that separates water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen fuel that derives from this process has potential as a cleaner replacement for fossil fuels. As an energy source, hydrogen releases no harmful emissions and is efficient. But the production of hydrogen is difficult and energy intensive, so the production often uses fossil fuels to produce the necessary energy. Plasmonic photocatalysis could help enable the efficient and clean production of hydrogen fuel. Other applications for improved photocatalysis include pollution reduction (with direct impacts on health), carbon-dioxide reduction, and the creation of sterile environments.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Energy, manufacturing, infrastructure

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

New Rules for Nanomaterials?

Why is this topic significant?

Some nanomaterials could have potentially harmful effects on human health and the environment, and regulations need to protect against these dangers. However, strict regulation of nanomaterials threatens to stifle the development of these potentially significantly beneficial substances.

Description

Several federal agencies are responsible for various types of nanomaterial products in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for nanomaterials in use in drugs, veterinary products, medical devices, food, and cosmetics; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates nanomaterials in chemical substances or pesticides. The EPA typically regulates chemical substances using the Toxic Substances Control Act, but this act currently does not cover nanomaterials. For nanomaterials, the EPA uses a Significant New Use Rule that ensures that new uses of nanomaterials have undergone investigation before the nanomaterial goes on the market. However, in March 2015, the EPA proposed adding reporting and recording requirements for nanomaterials as part of the Toxic Substances Control Act. The proposed changes would require manufacturers and processors to report to the EPA information—such as chemical characteristics and surface modifications—about any nanomaterials they use. The rule would cover nanomaterials that are solid at 25°C and atmospheric pressure. The rule would include substances of the same chemistry but of different shapes (such as rods and spheres), which could mean that some companies would need to make separate reports for a number of nanosize morphologies of the same chemistry. The EPA's proposal would not include the reporting of some nanomaterials—for example, DNA, RNA, and substances that break down in water to become ions of less than 1 nanometer in diameter. Nanosize materials that manufacturers do not create purposefully are also exempt from the EPA's suggested changes.

Implications

On the surface, these proposed changes appear to generate more administration and hassle for companies that use or intend to use nanomaterials. Additional red tape could hinder the development of nanomaterials for commercial use. However, the rules could help to progress the industry. The EPA intends to use the information from companies' recording and reporting to guide any further regulations it deems necessary under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The proposed changes may be essential for the industry and the US government to gain knowledge of nanomaterials for developing appropriate regulations that safely encourage the adoption of these substances.

Impacts/Disruptions

The changes that the EPA has proposed suggest that the current provisions for regulating nanomaterials are no longer suitable. Perhaps the need for change is a result of more companies' using or manufacturing nanomaterials than previously, or perhaps it is because the diversity of nanomaterials in use has increased. Regardless, the EPA seems to think that the Significant New Use Rule is no longer sufficient to regulate nanomaterials, which suggests the nanomaterials industry is moving into a new phase of maturation.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Manufacturing, materials, nanotechnology

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: