Journal of Nanoparticle Research

, 14:1093 | Cite as

Nanotechnology for sustainability: what does nanotechnology offer to address complex sustainability problems?

  • Arnim Wiek
  • Rider W. Foley
  • David H. Guston


Nanotechnology is widely associated with the promise of positively contributing to sustainability. However, this view often focuses on end-of-pipe applications, for instance, for water purification or energy efficiency, and relies on a narrow concept of sustainability. Approaching sustainability problems and solution options from a comprehensive and systemic perspective instead may yield quite different conclusions about the contribution of nanotechnology to sustainability. This study conceptualizes sustainability problems as complex constellations with several potential intervention points and amenable to different solution options. The study presents results from interdisciplinary workshops and literature reviews that appraise the contribution of the selected nanotechnologies to mitigate such problems. The study focuses exemplarily on the urban context to make the appraisals tangible and relevant. The solution potential of nanotechnology is explored not only for well-known urban sustainability problems such as water contamination and energy use but also for less obvious ones such as childhood obesity. Results indicate not only potentials but also limitations of nanotechnology’s contribution to sustainability and can inform anticipatory governance of nanotechnology in general, and in the urban context in particular.


Nanotechnology Sustainability Complex problems Problem solving Intervention research Anticipatory governance 



The authors would like to thank their colleagues at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (CNS-ASU) and Lauren Withycombe Keeler (School of Sustainability, ASU) for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article, as well as Richard Rushford (School of Sustainability), Evan Taylor (CNS-ASU), and Braden Kay (School of Sustainability) for research assistance. This research was undertaken with support by CNS-ASU, funded by the National Science Foundation (cooperative agreement #0531194 and #0937591). The findings and observations contained in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


  1. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) (2011) Motorola 52nd street site EPA national priorities list (NPL) site. Accessed 6 April 2012
  2. Arizona Climate Change Action Group (ACCAG) (2006) Final Arizona greenhouse gas inventory and reference case projects: appendix D: greenhouse gas emissions inventory and reference case projections 1990–2020. Arizona Climate Change Action Group, PhoenixGoogle Scholar
  3. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) (2006) Third five year review: operable unit 1—Motorola 52nd street superfund site. Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, PhoenixGoogle Scholar
  4. Arizona Public Service (APS) (2011) Arizona Public Service Company 2011–2020 transmission plan. Accessed 2 April 2012
  5. Arizona Public Service (APS) (2012) APS will fuel Arizona with a clean, diverse, customer-powered energy mix. Accessed 2 April 2012
  6. Barben D, Fisher E, Selin C, Guston DH (2008) Anticipatory governance of nanotechnology: foresight, engagement, and integration. In: Hacket EJ, Amsterdamska O, Lynch M, Wajcman J (eds) The handbook of science and technology studies, 3rd edn. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 979–1000Google Scholar
  7. Barnes M (2010) Solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation: White House task force on childhood obesity—report to the President. Office of the President, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  8. Bernardo P, Drioli E, Golemme G (2009) Membrane gas separation: a review/state of the art. Ind Eng Chem Res 48:4638–4663CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Biro FM, Wien M (2010) Childhood obesity and adult morbidities. Am J Clin Nutr 91(S):1499–1505Google Scholar
  10. Brennan L, Castro S, Brownson RC, Claus J, Orleans CT (2011) Accelerating evidence reviews and broadening evidence standards to identify effective, promising, and emerging policy and environmental strategies for prevention of childhood obesity. Annu Rev Public Health 32:199–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Brooks D (2011) Light heavyweight: a UNH spinoff company works on flexible white light sources. University of New Hampshire Magazine, USAGoogle Scholar
  12. Chang PR, Pantaleoni AD, Shenk DJ (2010) Jet-assisted injection of nano-scale, zero-valent iron to treat TCE in a deep alluvial aquifer. ERM, ScottsdaleGoogle Scholar
  13. Chow WTL, Chuang W-C, Gober P (2012) Vulnerability to extreme heat in metropolitan Phoenix: spatial, temporal, and demographic dimensions. Prof Geogr 64:286–302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Clark WC, Dickson NM (2003) Sustainability science: the emerging research program. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100(14):8059–8061CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dalrymple M, Bryck D (2011) Energy efficiency on an urban scale. Global Institute of Sustainability, TempeGoogle Scholar
  16. Diallo M, Brinker CJ, Nel A, Shannon M, Savage N (2011) Nanotechnology for sustainability: environment, water, food, minerals, and climate. In: Roco MC, Mirkin C, Hersam MC (eds) Nanotechnology research directions for societal needs in 2020. Springer, London, pp 145–173Google Scholar
  17. Dietz WH (1998) Health consequences of obesity in youth: childhood predictions of adult disease. Pediatrics 101:518–525Google Scholar
  18. Discovery Triangle (DT) (2011) About: discovery triangle. Accessed 30 November 2011
  19. Domingo JL (2007) Omega-3 fatty acids and the benefits of fish consumption: is all that glitters gold? Environ Int 33(7):993–998CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Eason T, Meyer DE, Curran MA, Upadhyayula VKK (2011) Guidance to facilitate decisions for sustainable nanotechnology. Environmental Protection Agency, CincinnatiGoogle Scholar
  21. Edmond A, Kong H-S, Carter CH Jr (1993) Blue LEDs, UV photodiodes and high-temperature rectifiers in 6H-SiC. Phys B 185:453–460CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ela WP, Sedlak DL, Barlaz MA, Henry HF et al (2011) Towards identifying the next generation of superfund and hazardous waste site contaminants. Environ Health Perspect 119(1):6–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Eldaw A (2011) Nanotechnology in elevation of the worldwide impact of obesity and obesity-related diseases: potential roles in human health and disease. J Diabetes Sci Technol 5(4):1005–1008Google Scholar
  24. Ellin N (2009) Canalscape. Available at Accessed 1 December 2011
  25. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2011a) Chemical report Accessed 15 January 2012
  26. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2011b) Site overview. Motorola, Inc. 52nd street plant.!OpenDocument#documents. Accessed 12 October 2011
  27. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2011c) Results of soil gas sampling and next steps—community involvement group presentation.$FILE/June8_Community_Meeting_Final.pdf. Accessed 5 January 2012
  28. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2011d) October sampling event: OU1 validated indoor air and subslab data.$FILE/October%20Data%20Summary%20no%20addresses_02Feb2012.pdf. Accessed 6 April 2012
  29. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2011e) Selected sites using or testing nanoparticles for remediation media. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  30. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2011f) Report: Motorola 52nd St. Superfund Site five-year review completed. Environmental Protection Agency, San FransicoGoogle Scholar
  31. Finegood DT, Karanfil O, Matteson CL (2008) Getting from analysis to action: framing obesity research, policy and practice with a solution-oriented complex systems lens. Healthc Pap 9(1):36–41Google Scholar
  32. Fraser MW, Richman JM, Galinsky MJ, Day SH (2009) Intervention research—developing social programs. Oxford University Press Inc, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  33. Freedman DS, Khan LK, Serdula MK, Dietz WH et al (2005) The relation of childhood BMI to adult adiposity: the Bogalusa heart study. Pediatrics 115(1):22–27Google Scholar
  34. Friesen CA, Buttry DA (2010) Metal-air low temperature ionic liquid cell. United States Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  35. Fthenakis VM, Kim HC, Alsema E (2008) Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles. Environ Sci Technol 42(6):2168–2174CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Gao X, Hodgson JL, Jiang DE et al (2011) Open-shell singlet character of stable derivatives of nonacene, hexacene and teranthene. Org Lett 13(13):3316–3319CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Graf M, Gurlo A, Barsan N, Weimar U, Hierlemann A (2006) Microfabricated gas sensor systems with sensitive nanocrystalline metal-oxide films. J Nanopart Res 8:823–839CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Grimm KA, Blanck HM, Scanlon KS, Moore LV, Grummer-Strawn LM, Foltz JL (2010) State-specific trends in fruit and vegetable consumption among adults—United States, 2000–2009. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 59(35):1125–1130Google Scholar
  39. Guston DH (2008) Innovation policy: not just a jumbo shrimp. Nature 454:940–941CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hamilton MC, Hites RA, Schwager SJ, Foran JA et al (2005) Lipid composition and contaminants in farmed and wild salmon. Environ Sci Technol 39(22):8622–8629CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hatch-Miller J, Mundell WA, Gleason M, Mayes KK, Wong B (2006) Docket No. RE-00000C-05-0030. Arizona Corporation CommissionGoogle Scholar
  42. Hiza HAB, Bente L (2007) Nutrient content of the U.S. food supply, 1909–2004 a summary report. United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  43. Hu EL, Davis SM, Davis R, Scher E (2011) Applications: catalysis by nanostructured materials. In: Roco MC, Mirken CA, Hersam MC (eds) Nanotechnology research directions for societal needs in 2020. Springer, London, pp 315–332Google Scholar
  44. Jerneck A, Olsson L, Ness B et al (2011) Structuring sustainability science. Sustain Sci 6(1):69–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Johnson C, Upton C, Wiek A, Golub A (2011). Reinvent Phoenix: cultivating equity, engagement, economic development and design excellence with transit-oriented development. City of Phoenix and Arizona State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  46. Jones R (2007) Can nanotechnology ever prove that it is green? Nat Nanotech 2:71–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Karinen R, Guston DH (2010) Governing future technologies: nanotechnology and the rise of an assessment regime. In: Kaiser M, Kurath M, Massan S, Rehmann-Sutter C (eds) Toward anticipatory governance: the experience with nanotechnology. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 217–232Google Scholar
  48. Karn B (2005) Overview of environmental applications and implications. How does nanotechnology related to the environment? Or why are we here? In: Karn B, Masciangioli T, Zhang WX, Colvin V, Alivisatos P (eds) Nanotechnology and the environment: application and implications. American Chemical Society, Washington, DC, pp 2–6Google Scholar
  49. Kates RW, Clark WC, Corell R, Hall JM et al (2001) Sustainability science. Science 292(5517):641–642CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Kato K, Hibino T, Komoto K, Ihara S, Yamamoto S, Fujihara H (2001) A life-cycle analysis on thin-film CdS/CdTe PV modules. Sol Energy Mater Sol Cells 67:279–287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kaur I, Jazdzyk M, Stein NN, Prusevich P, Miller GP (2010) Design, synthesis, and characterization of a persistent nonacene derivative. J Am Chem Soc 132(4):1261–1263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kim SJ, Ko SH, Kang KH, Han J (2010) Direct seawater desalination by ion concentration polarization. Nat Nanotechnol 5(4):297–301CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Kimbrell G (2009) Governance of nanotechnology and nanomaterials: principles, regulation, and renogiating the social contract. J Law Med Ethics 37(4):706–723CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Komiyama H, Takeuchi K (2006) Sustainability science: building a new discipline. Sustain Sci 1(1):1–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Kuzma J, VerHage P (2006) Nanotechnology in agriculture and food production. Project on Emerging Technologies, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  56. Lerner S (2010) Sacrifice zones—the front lines of toxic chemical exposure in the United States. The MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  57. Lightwood J, Bibbins-Domingo K, Coxson P et al (2009) Forecasting the future economic burden of current adolescent overweight: an estimate of the coronary heart disease policy model. Am J Public Health 99(12):2230–2237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Lobo J, Strumsky D (2011) How green is my nano? Evidence from USPTO patents. 3rd Annual Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies. TempeGoogle Scholar
  59. Mahrer E (2011) APS renewable energy overview. Greenhouse Gas, Renewable Energy, Green Building and Sustainability Seminar, MesaGoogle Scholar
  60. Mickelson L (2011) Surface stress during electro-oxidation of carbon monoxide and bulk stress evolution during electrochemical intercalcation of lithium. Dissertation, Arizona State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  61. Midgley G (2006) Systemic intervention for public health. Am J Public Health 96(3):466–472CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Mihee C, Choi Y, Park H, Kim K, Woo GJ, Park J (2007) Titanium dioxide UV photocatalytic disinfection in fresh carrots. J Food Protect 70(1):97–101Google Scholar
  63. Noufi R, Zweibel K (2006) High-efficiency CdTe and CIGS thin-film solar cells: highlights and challenges. IEEE 4th world conference on photovoltaic energy conversion, WaikoloaGoogle Scholar
  64. Oh WC, Zhang FJ, Chen ML (2009) Preparation of MWCNT/TiO2 composites by using MWCNTs and titanium(IV) Alkoxide precursors in benzene and their photocatalytic effect and bactericidal activity. Bull Korean Chem Soc 30(11):2637–2642CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Philbrick M (2010) An anticipatory governance approach to carbon nanotubes. Risk Anal 30(11):1708–1722CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Pitkin B (2001) A historical perspective of technology and planning. Berkeley Plan J 15:32–55Google Scholar
  67. Purushothaman B, Bruzek M, Parkin SR, Miller AF, Anthony JE (2011) Synthesis and structural characterization of crystalline nonacenes. Angew Chem 123:7151–7155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Ravetz J (2006) Post-normal science and the complexity of transitions towards sustainability. Ecol Complex 3(4):275–284CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Robinson DKR, Morrison M (2009) Report on nanotechnology in agrifood. European Commission: ObservatoryNANO. Accessed 14 May 2012
  70. Robson AA (2011) Food nanotechnology: water is the key to lowering the energy density of processed foods. Nutr Health 20(3–4):231–236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Roco MC, Harthorn B, Guston D, Shapira P (2011) Innovative and responsible governance of nanotechnology for societal development. J Nanopart Res. doi: 10.1007/s11051-011-0454-4
  72. Ross A (2011) Bird on fire: lessons from the world’s least sustainable city. Oxford University Press Inc, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  73. Salloum KS, Hayes JR, Friesen CA, Posner JD (2008) Sequential flow membrane less microfluidic fuel cell with porous electrodes. J Power Sources 180:243–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Sarewitz D, Nelson R (2008) Three rules for technological fixes. Nature 456(7224):871–872CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Sarewitz D, Pielke R Jr (2007) The neglected heart of science policy: reconciling supply of and demand for science. Environ Sci Policy 10(1):5–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Schensul JJ (2009) Community, culture and sustainability in multilevel dynamic systems intervention science. Am J Community Psychol 43(3–4):241–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. SDC (2012) SDC Materials announces field trials for emission control catalysts. Accessed 10 February 2012
  78. Seager R, Ting M, Held I, Kushnir Y, Lu J, Vecchi G et al (2007) Model projections of an immanent transition to a more arid climate in southwestern North America. Science 316:1181–1184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Seager T, Selinger E, Wiek A (2012) Sustainable engineering science for resolving wicked problems. J Agric Environ Ethics 25(4):467–484Google Scholar
  80. Siegrist M, Cousin M-E, Kastenholz H, Wiek A (2007) Public acceptance of nanotechnology foods and food packaging: the influence of affect and trust. Appetite 49(2):459–466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Siegrist M, Stampfli N, Kastenholz H (2009) Acceptance of nanotechnology foods: a conjoint study examining consumers’ willingness to buy. Br Food J 111(7):660–668CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Singh GK, Kogan MD, van Dyck PC (2010) Changes in state-specific childhood obesity and overweight prevalence in the United States from 2003 to 2007. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 164(7):598–607CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Smalley R (2006) Nanotechnology and our energy challenge. In: Foster L (ed) Nanotechnology: science, innovation, and opportunity. Pearson Education Inc, Upper Saddle River, pp 13–17Google Scholar
  84. Smith GB, Granqvist CG (2011) Green nanotechnology: solutions for sustainability and energy in the built environment. CRC Press, Boca RatonGoogle Scholar
  85. Svara JH (2011) The early stage of local government action to promote sustainability. In: Cotnoir PD (ed) The municipalities year book—2011. ICMA Press, Washington, DC, pp 43–60Google Scholar
  86. Tarabara VV (2010) Nanotechnology and water purification. Nanotechnology thought leaders series. Accessed 12 October 2011
  87. Tettey KE, Yee MQ, Lee D (2010) Photocatalytic and conductive MWCNT/TiO2 nanocomposite thin films. Appl Mat Interfaces 2(9):2646–2652CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. United State Department of Justice (USDOJ) (2011) United States’ Investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff Office. Accessed January 19 2012
  89. United States Census Bureau (USCB) (2010a) Census 2010 summary file 1: Arizona block data. Prepared by the City of PhoenixGoogle Scholar
  90. USCB (2010b) 2005–2009 American community survey Arizona. Prepared by the City of PhoenixGoogle Scholar
  91. Valli F, Tijoriwala K, Mahapatra A (2010) Nanotechnology for water purification. Int J Nuc Desalt 4(1):49–57Google Scholar
  92. Waitz T, Becker B, Wagner T, Sauerwald T, Kohl C, Tiemann M (2010) Ordered nanoporous SnO2 gas sensors with high thermal stability. Sens Actuators B150:788–793Google Scholar
  93. Wang J, Zhang XD, Han JT (2004) Study on catalyzing germicidal efficacy of ultrasound and nanometer titanium dioxide. Chin J Disinfect 02:3–7Google Scholar
  94. Wang J, Zhou G, Chen C, Yu H, Li Y, Jiao F, Zhao Y et al (2007) Acute toxicity and biodistribution of different sized titanium dioxide particles in mice after oral administration. Toxicol Lett 168:176–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Wang C, Yin L, Zhang L, Xiang D, Gao R (2010) Metal oxide gas sensors: sensitivity and influencing factors. Sensors 3(10):2088–2106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Watlington K (2005) Emerging nanotechnologies for site remediation and wastewater treatment. Thesis, North Carolina State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  97. Weiss PS, Lewis PA (2010) Sustainability through nanotechnology. ACS Nano 4(3):1249–1250CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Wiek A, Foley R (2011) Urban sustainability challenges in metropolitan Phoenix. Workshop report. Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Arizona State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  99. Wiek A, Kay B (eds) (2011). Whose community, whose future? Sustainability efforts in a diverse community in Phoenix. Project report. School of Sustainability, Arizona State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  100. Wiek A, Selin C, Johnson C (eds) (2010) The future of Phoenix—crafting sustainable development strategies. Project Report. School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, TempeGoogle Scholar
  101. Wiek A, Ness B, Brand FS, Schweizer-Ries P, Farioli F (2012a) From complex systems thinking to transformational change: a comparative appraisal of sustainability science projects. Sustain Sci 7(Suppl 1):5–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Wiek A, Guston DH, Frow E, Calvert J (2012b) Sustainability and anticipatory governance in synthetic biology. Int J Soc Ecol Sustain Dev 3(2):25–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. Wiek A, Guston DH, van der Leeuw S, Selin C, Shapira P (in press) The nano-enhanced city, sustainability challenges, and anticipatory governance. Urb TechnolGoogle Scholar
  104. Wiesner MR, Lowry GV, Jones KL, Hochella MF Jr, Giulio RT, Casman E, Bernhardt ES (2009) Decreasing uncertainties in assessing environmental exposure, risk, and ecological implications of nanomaterials. Environ Sci Technol 43(17):6458–6462CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Woan BK, Pyrgiotakis G, Sigmund W (2009) Photocatalytic carbon-nanotube—TiO2 composites. Adv Mater 21:2233–2239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Zhang WX (2005) Nanotechnology for water purification and waste treatment. Frontiers in nanotechnology US EPA millennium lecture series. Washington, DCGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Arnim Wiek
    • 1
    • 2
  • Rider W. Foley
    • 1
    • 2
  • David H. Guston
    • 2
  1. 1.School of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  2. 2.Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Consortium for Science, Policy & OutcomesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

Personalised recommendations