Life cycle assessment at nanoscale: review and recommendations

  • Sheetal Gavankar
  • Sangwon SuhEmail author
  • Arturo F. Keller



The need for a systematic evaluation of the human and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) has been widely recognized, and a growing body of literature is available endorsing life cycle assessment (LCA) as a valid tool for the same. The purpose of this study is to evaluate how the nano-specific environmental assessments are being done within the existing framework of life cycle inventory and impact assessment and whether these frameworks are valid and/or whether they can be modified for nano-evaluations.


In order to do that, we reviewed the state-of-the-art literature on environmental impacts of nanomaterials and life cycle assessment studies on ENMs and nanoproducts. We evaluated the major characteristics and mechanisms under which nanomaterials affect the environment and whether these characteristics and mechanisms can be adequately addressed with current life cycle inventories and impact assessment practices. We also discuss whether the current data and knowledge accumulated around fate, transport, and toxicity of nanomaterials can be used to perform an interim evaluation while more data are being generated.

Observations and recommendations

We found that while there is plenty of literature available promoting LCA as a viable tool for ENMs and nanoproducts, there are only a handful of studies where at least some parts of life cycle were evaluated for nanoproducts or nanomaterial. None of the LCA studies on ENMs or nanoproducts that we came across assessed nano-specific fate, transport, and toxicity effects as part of their evaluation citing the lack of data as the primary reason.

However, our literature review indicates that nano-LCA studies need not omit the assessment of nanomaterials’ human health and environmental impact due to incomplete data. There is some evidence that scalability may exist in certain types of nanomaterial, and traditional characterization can be applied even below 100 nm up to the scalability breakdown limits. For the size range where the scalability cannot be established, it may be more appropriate to explore empirical relationships, though possibly crude, between nanomaterial properties and their impact on human health and environment. Empirical relationships thus derived can serve as valid input for assessment until specific data points for nanomaterial fate, transport, and toxicity become available. Finally, where there is no quantitative data available, qualitative inferences may be drawn based on the known information of the nanomaterial and its potential release pathways.


LCA of engineered nanomaterials LCI of engineered nanomaterials LCIA of engineered nanomaterials Nanomaterial fate Transport Toxicity 



This material is partially based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency under Cooperative Agreement Number DBI-0830117. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the Environmental Protection Agency. This work has not been subjected to EPA review and no official endorsement should be inferred.


  1. Auffan M, Rose J, Bottero J-Y, Lowry GV, Jolivet J-P, Wiesner MR (2009) Towards a definition of inorganic nanoparticles from an environmental, health and safety perspective. Nat Nano 4(10):634–641CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Balbus JM, Florini K, Denison RA, Walsh SA (2006) Getting it right the first time: developing nanotechnology while protecting workers, public health, and the environment. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1076(1):331–342CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bauer C, Buchgeister J, Hischier R, Poganietz W, Schebek L, Warsen J (2008) Towards a framework for life cycle thinking in the assessment of nanotechnology. J Clean Prod 16(8–9):910–926CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Biswas P, Wu CY (2005) Nanoparticles and the environment. J Air Waste Manag Assoc 55(6):708–746Google Scholar
  5. Borm PJA, Robbins D, Haubold S, Kuhlbusch T, Fissan H, Donaldson K, Schins R, Stone V, Kreyling W, Lademann J, Krutmann J, Warheit D, Oberdorster E (2006) The potential risks of nanomaterials: a review carried out for ECETOC. Part Fibre Toxicol 3(1):11CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Daniel M-C, Astruc D (2003) Gold nanoparticles: assembly, supramolecular chemistry, quantum-size-related properties, and applications toward biology, catalysis, and nanotechnology. Chem Rev 104(1):293–346CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Darlington TK, Neigh AM, Spencer MT, Nguyen OT, Oldenburg SJ (2009) Nanoparticle characteristics affecting environmental fate and transport through soil. Environ Toxicol Chem 28(6):1191–1199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Davis JM (2007) How to assess the risks of nanotechnology: learning from past experience. J Nanosci Nanotechno 7(2):402–409CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dhawan A, Sharma V (2010) Toxicity assessment of nanomaterials: methods and challenges. Anal Bioanal Chem 398(2):589–605CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dudek AZ, Arodz T, Galvez J (2006) Computational methods in developing quantitative structure-activity relationships (QSAR): a review. Comb Chem High Throughput Screen 9(3):213–228CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fourches D, Pu D, Tassa C, Weissleder R, Shaw SY, Mumper RJ, Tropsha A (2010) Quantitative nanostructure–activity relationship modeling. Acs Nano 4(10):5703–5712CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fourches D, Pu D, Tropsha A (2011) Exploring quantitative nanostructure-activity relationships (QNAR) modeling as a tool for predicting biological effects of manufactured nanoparticles. Comb Chem High Throughput Screen 14(3):217–225CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Grubb GF, Bakshi BR (2011) Life cycle of titanium dioxide nanoparticle production impact of emissions and use of resources. J Ind Ecol 15(1):81–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Handy RD, Owen R, Valsami-Jones E (2008) The ecotoxicology of nanoparticles and nanomaterials: current status, knowledge gaps, challenges, and future needs. Ecotoxicology 17(5):315–325CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Healy ML, Dahlben LJ, Isaacs JA (2008) Environmental assessment of single-walled carbon nanotube processes. J Ind Ecol 12(3):376–393CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Helland A, Scheringer M, Siegrist M, Kastenholz HG, Wiek A, Scholz RW (2008) Risk assessment of engineered nanomaterials: a survey of industrial approaches. Environ Sci Technol 42(2):640–646CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. ISO-14040 (2006) Environmental management—life cycle assessment—principles and framework. International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), GeneveGoogle Scholar
  18. Jiang J, Oberdörster G, Elder A, Gelein R, Mercer P, Biswas P (2008) Does nanoparticle activity depend upon size and crystal phase? Nanotoxicology 2(1):33–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Junam Y, Lead J (2008) Manufactured nanoparticles: an overview of their chemistry, interactions and potential environmental implications. Sci Total Environ 400(1–3):396–414Google Scholar
  20. Keller AA, Wang H, Zhou D, Lenihan HS, Cherr G, Cardinale BJ, Miller R, Ji Z (2010) Stability and aggregation of metal oxide nanoparticles in natural aqueous matrices. Environ Sci Technol 44(6):1962–1967CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Khanna V, Bakshi BR (2009) Carbon nanofiber polymer composites: evaluation of life cycle energy use. Environ Sci Technol 43(6):2078–2084CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Khanna V, Bakshi BR, Lee LJ (2008) Carbon nanofiber production. J Ind Ecol 12(3):394–410CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Klaine SJ, Alvarez PJJ, Batley GE, Fernandes TF, Handy RD, Lyon DY, Mahendra S, McLaughlin MJ, Lead JR (2008) Nanomaterials in the environment: behavior, fate, bioavailability, and effects. Environ Toxicol Chem 27(9):1825CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Klöpffer W; Int J Life Cycle Assess, Frankfurt, Germany, U. E. Mary Ann Curran, Cincinnati, USA, A. I. Paolo Frankl, Roma, Italy, C. Reinout Heijungs, Leiden University, Netherlands, E. Z. Annette Köhler, Switzerland and T. U. o. D. Stig Irving Olsen, Lyngby, Denmark (2007) Nanotechnology and life cycle assessment. Project on Emerging Technologies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The European CommissionGoogle Scholar
  25. Köhler AR, Som C, Helland A, Gottschalk F (2009) Studying the potential release of carbon nanotubes throughout the application life cycle. J Clean Prod 16(8–9):927–937Google Scholar
  26. Kushnir D, Sandén BA (2008) Energy requirements of carbon nanoparticle production. J Ind Ecol 12(3):360–375CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Lewinski N (2008) Nanomaterials: what are the environmental and health impacts? From
  28. Lewinski N, Colvin V, Drezek R (2008) Cytotoxicity of nanoparticles. Small 4(1):26–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Linkov I, Satterstrom FK, Steevens J, Ferguson E, Pleus RC (2007) Multi-criteria decision analysis and environmental risk assessment for nanomaterials. J Nanopart Res 9(4):543–554CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Linkov I, Varghese S, Jamil S, Seager T, Kiker G, Bridges T (2005) Multi-criteria decision analysis: a framework for structuring remedial decisions at contaminated sites. In: Linkov I, Ramadan A (eds) Comparative risk assessment and environmental decision making. Springer, Berlin, 38:15–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lloyd SM, Lave LB (2003) Life cycle economic and environmental implications of using nanocomposites in automobiles. Environ Sci Technol 37(15):3458–3466CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lloyd SM, Lave LB, Matthews HS (2005) Life cycle benefits of using nanotechnology to stabilize platinum-group metal particles in automotive catalysts. Environ Sci Technol 39(5):1384–1392CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lundqvist M, Stigler J, Elia G, Lynch I, Cedervall T, Dawson KA (2008) Nanoparticle size and surface properties determine the protein corona with possible implications for biological impacts. Proc Natl A Sci 105(38):14265–14270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. LUX-Research (2004) Sizing nanotechnology’s value chain. LUX Research Inc, NYGoogle Scholar
  35. Matthews HS, Lave L, MacLean H (2002) Life cycle impact assessment: a challenge for risk analysts. Risk Anal 22(5):853–860CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Maynard AD (2006) Nanotechnology: the next big thing, or much ado about nothing? Ann Occup Hyg 51(1):1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Maynard AD, Aitken RJ, Butz T, Colvin V, Donaldson K, Oberdörster G, Philbert MA, Ryan J, Seaton A, Stone V, Tinkle SS, Tran L, Walker NJ, Warheit DB (2006) Safe handling of nanotechnology. Nature 444(7117):267–269CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Maynard AD, Warheit DB, Philbert MA (2011) The new toxicology of sophisticated materials: nanotoxicology and beyond. Toxicol Sci 120:S109–S129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. McKone TE, Enoch KG (2002) CalTOX (registered trademark), a multimedia total exposure model spreadsheet user’s guide. version 4.0 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report LBNL – 47399Google Scholar
  40. Meng H, Xia T, George S, Nel AE (2009) A predictive toxicological paradigm for the safety assessment of nanomaterials. Acs Nano 3(7):1620–1627CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Meyer DE, Curran MA, Gonzalez MA (2009) An examination of existing data for the industrial manufacture and use of nanocomponents and their role in the life cycle impact of nanoproducts. Environ Sci Technol 43(5):1256–1263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Meyer DE, Curran MA, Gonzalez MA (2010) An examination of silver nanoparticles in socks using screening-level life cycle assessment. J Nanopart Res 13(1):147–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Nel A (2006) Toxic potential of materials at the nanolevel. Science 311(5761):622–627CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Nel AE, Mädler L, Velegol D, Xia T, Hoek EMV, Somasundaran P, Klaessig F, Castranova V, Thompson M (2009) Understanding biophysicochemical interactions at the nano–bio interface. Nat Mater 8(7):543–557CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nowack B, Bucheli TD (2007) Occurrence, behavior and effects of nanoparticles in the environment. Environ Pollut 150(1):5–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Oberdörster G (2010) Safety assessment for nanotechnology and nanomedicine: concepts of nanotoxicology. J Intern Med 267(1):89–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Oberdörster G, Maynard A, Donaldson K, Castranova V, Fitzpatrick J, Ausman K, Carter J, Karn B, Kreyling W, Lai D, Olin S, Monteiro-Riviere N, Warheit D, Yang H (2005) Principles for characterizing the potential human health effects from exposure to nanomaterials: elements of a screening strategy. Part Fibre Toxicol 2(1):8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Oberdorster G, Oberdorster E, Oberdorster J (2005) Nanotoxicology: an emerging discipline evolving from studies of ultrafine particles. Environ Health Perspect 113(7):823–839CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Osterwalder N, Capello C, Hungerbühler K, Stark WJ (2006) Energy consumption during nanoparticle production: how economic is dry synthesis? J Nanopart Res 8(1):1–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. PEN (2011) Nanotech-enabled consumer products continue to rise. Accessed 10 March 2011
  51. Poole CP, Owens FJ (2003) Introduction to nanotechnology. Wiley, HobokenGoogle Scholar
  52. Puzyn T, Gajewicz A, Leszczynska D, Leszczynski J (2010) Nanomaterials—the next great challenge for Qsar modelers., pp 383–409Google Scholar
  53. Puzyn T, Leszczynska D, Leszczynski J (2009) Toward the development of “Nano-QSARs”: advances and challenges. Small 5(22):2494–2509CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Ray P, Yu H, Fu P (2009) Toxicity and environmental risks of nanomaterials: challenges and future needs. J Environ Sci Health C 27(1):1–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Reijnders L (2006) Cleaner nanotechnology and hazard reduction of manufactured nanoparticles. J Clean Prod 14(2):124–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Roes AL, Marsili E, Nieuwlaar E, Patel MK (2007) Environmental and cost assessment of a polypropylene nanocomposite. J Polym Environ 15(3):212–226CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Rosenbaum RK, Bachmann TM, Gold LS, Huijbregts MAJ, Jolliet O, Juraske R, Koehler A, Larsen HF, MacLeod M, Margni M, McKone TE, Payet J, Schuhmacher M, Meent D, Hauschild MZ (2008) USEtox—the UNEP-SETAC toxicity model: recommended characterisation factors for human toxicity and freshwater ecotoxicity in life cycle impact assessment. J Life Cycle Assess 13(7):532–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Savolainen K, Alenius H, Norppa H, Pylkkänen L, Tuomi T, Kasper G (2010) Risk assessment of engineered nanomaterials and nanotechnologies—a review. Toxicology 269(2–3):92–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sayes CM, Warheit DB (2009) Characterization of nanomaterials for toxicity assessment. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Nanomed Nanobiotechnol 1(6):660–670CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Seager TP, Linkov I (2009) Uncertainty in life cycle assessment of nanomaterials. In: Linkov I, Steevens J (eds) Nanomaterials: risks and benefits. Springer, Netherlands, pp 423–436Google Scholar
  61. Şengül H, Theis TL (2011) An environmental impact assessment of quantum dot photovoltaics (QDPV) from raw material acquisition through use. J Clean Prod 19(1):21–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Seppälä J, Basson L, Norris GA (2001) Decision analysis frameworks for life-cycle impact assessment. J Ind Ecol 5(4):45–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Shatkin JA (2008) Informing environmental decision making by combining life cycle assessment and risk analysis. J Ind Ecol 12(3):278–281CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Som C, Berges M, Chaudhry Q, Dusinska M, Fernandes TF, Olsen SI, Nowack B (2010) The importance of life cycle concepts for the development of safe nanoproducts. Toxicology 269(2–3):160–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Subramanian V, Youtie J, Porter AL, Shapira P (2009) Is there a shift to active nanostructures? J Nanopart Res 12(1):1–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Tervonen T, Lahdelma R (2007) Implementing stochastic multicriteria acceptability analysis. Eur J Oper Res 178(2):500–513CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Tervonen T, Linkov I, Figueira JR, Steevens J, Chappell M, Merad M (2008) Risk-based classification system of nanomaterials. J Nanopart Res 11(4):757–766CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Theis TL, Bakshi BR, Durham D, Fthenakis VM, Gutowski TG, Isaacs JA, Seager T, Wiesner MR (2011) A life cycle framework for the investigation of environmentally benign nanoparticles and products. physica status solidi (RRL). Rapid Res Lett 5(9):312–317Google Scholar
  69. Thio BJR, Zhou D, Keller AA (2011) Influence of natural organic matter on the aggregation and deposition of titanium dioxide nanoparticles. J Hazard Mater 189(1–2):556–563CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. UNESCO (2006) The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural OrganizationGoogle Scholar
  71. Wardak A, Gorman ME, Swami N, Deshpande S (2008) Identification of risks in the life cycle of nanotechnology-based products. J Ind Ecol 12(3):435–448CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Wiesner MR, Lowry GV, Alvarez P, Dionysiou D, Biswas P (2006) Assessing the risks of manufactured nanomaterials. Environ Sci Technol 40(14):4336–4345CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wiesner MR, Lowry GV, Jones KL, Hochella JMF, Di 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
  74. Zhou D, Keller AA (2010) Role of morphology in the aggregation kinetics of ZnO nanoparticles. Water Res 44(9):2948–2956CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sheetal Gavankar
    • 1
  • Sangwon Suh
    • 1
  • Arturo F. Keller
    • 1
  1. 1.Bren School of Environmental Science and ManagementUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA

Personalised recommendations