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Nanomaterials June 2014 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Nanocellulose Sponges for Environmental Remediation

Why is this topic significant?

Despite improvements to drilling and transportation procedures, oil spills continue to pose a substantial risk to marine environments. Novel nanoscale materials could aid in the effective removal of pollutants and could help to avert environmental damage.

Description

In April 2014, researchers from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology and the University of Bordeaux released the results of their research into a novel nanocellulose material that could potentially absorb large quantities of oil at the surface of a body of water. The scientists chemically modified the ultralightweight material, rendering it both oleophilic and hydrophobic—a necessary step for the material to absorb oil selectively over water. The highly porous nanocellulose sponges float on top of water and oil, are flexible, retain their structure, are biodegradable, and are capable of absorbing up to 100 times their own weight in oil. The basic material for the sponges—nanofibrillated cellulose—originates from natural materials and renewable sources such as wood pulp, agricultural by-products, or recycled paper. The researchers fabricate the sponges by forcing aqueous solutions of these materials through high-pressure nozzles and removing water with freeze-drying processes.

Implications

Oil spills represent an enormous threat to global marine biodiversity and can have a significant economic impact on companies and governments charged with their cleanup. The extent to which modern society currently relies on oil for power generation and the production of plastics means that this threat is unlikely to diminish in the short- to medium-term future. The inadequate response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 highlights the pressing need for novel solutions that enable the effective removal of pollution in the event of future oil spills. The development of nanoscale materials—such as these nanocellulose sponges—for environmental remediation represents significant progress in the battle to control oil spills from transportation tankers or drilling rigs. The laboratory-scale nanocellulose sponges under study will require additional research and development before finding use in real-world situations. To this end, the researchers are currently seeking partners from industry who could contribute to this process.

Impacts/Disruptions

In addition to combating oil pollution, several other applications for nanocellulose sponges are possible. The extremely high porosity of these materials (>99%) means that opportunities exist beyond environmental remediation for players in the oil industry—the transportation or storage of oil in sponges, for example, may prove to be more efficient or risk free than current methods. Alternatively, the impressive properties exhibited by nanocellulose sponges could lead to their use in a variety of household-cleaning products or industrial processes. Indeed, the precise properties of the material are controllable—depending on the chemicals in use in the functionalization step. Consequently, commercial applications beyond those that require the removal of oil—for example, insulation materials in the construction industry or desiccants that double as food packaging and help to keep perishable items fresh—may be possible.

Scale of Impact

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

Time of Impact

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

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Oil and gas, food, building and construction, consumer products

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Nanoprotection from Counterfeiting

Why is this topic significant?

Counterfeiting of money, foodstuffs, and consumer goods—from clothing to electronics devices—is a major global issue that results in significant lost revenues, damages economies, and can even represent a risk to public health. The search for novel and effective anticounterfeiting methods is now reaching the nanoscale—where researchers are finding ways to manipulate materials and add levels of security to consumer products in ways that counterfeiters would find practically impossible to replicate.

Description

In February 2014, researchers from ETH Zürich published the results of their research into novel nanoscale anticounterfeiting methods for use in the olive-oil industry. The addition of magnetic DNA nanoparticles encased in a protective silica shell enables manufacturers to label their goods with information ranging from place of origin to date of production. The scientists that developed the technology claim that the nanoparticles are virtually impossible to tamper with; do not affect the taste, texture, or safety of the food product; are inexpensive; and—when necessary—are easy to detect. The method essentially enables manufacturers to add a label to their products that can store unlimited information and that is not alterable or removable. As little as a single microgram of material can effectively label a whole liter of olive oil at a cost of approximately 0.02 cents. Only a few grams of the nanoparticles, therefore, would be sufficient to label the entire annual olive-oil production of Italy.

Implications

The requirement for effective anticounterfeiting methods across a variety of industries is clear. Between December 2013 and January 2014, Interpol and Europol confiscated over 1200 tons of counterfeit and substandard food and almost 430 000 liters of counterfeit beverages. The introduction of novel solutions to the problem of counterfeit goods would result in a variety of short-term benefits. For example, the introduction of increasingly sophisticated security measures would undoubtedly reduce instances of foodstuff adulteration—simultaneously increasing tax revenues.

Impacts/Disruptions

The introduction of legislation enforcing the use of advanced anticounterfeiting technologies would be a significant driver that could lead to the widespread adoption of this technology or similar ones. However, the introduction of artificial nanoscale materials into consumable items presents a range of issues related to food safety, and regulations could also have an effect opposite to the intended purpose of the enforced legislation—raising a barrier to the application of such security technologies. In either case, the European Union is likely to pioneer the introduction of legislation in this sphere. A closely related issue that also provides a potential barrier to the adoption of this technology is public acceptance. The general public is unlikely willingly to accept nanoscale additives in foodstuffs that are present purely for the prevention of counterfeiting. If this public-acceptance barrier proves to be the case, the technology could still find use in a range of other industries. For example, counterfeiting is a prominent issue for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, consumer goods, and nonconsumable oils—for which the use of nanotechnology is already widespread.

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

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Pharmaceuticals, food, consumer products, oil and gas

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: