Nanotechnology and the millennium development goals: water, energy, and agri-food


The claim has often been made that nanotechnologies will contribute to the global development process. In 2005, a careful study identified specific areas where nanotechnologies could help developing countries achieve the millennium development goals. This article examines whether the research agenda of nanotechnology in the intervening period, as reflected in publications, has followed the directions identified at that time, in three key areas, water, energy, and agri-food. We find that the research community has taken up the broad directions indicated in the earlier study, although not so often the detailed applications of specific nanoscale techniques or phenomena. However, the impact on global development is unclear, both because the same applications can be useful in both developed and developing countries, and because the conditions in developing countries may not match the socio-technical requirements of the applications.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9


  1. 1.

    Because of the heterogeneity among the so-called “developing countries,” we avoid lumping them into one category and instead refer either to low and middle income countries (referring to World Bank measures of national income per capita), or later in the article to their status on the human development index. The phrase developing country will therefore appear in this article only when it was used by the original author(s), and then it will appear in quotation marks. We will refer to the World Bank category of high income countries as affluent.

  2. 2., accessed December 30, 2011.

  3. 3.

    The US National Nanotechnology Initiative defines nanotechnology as “the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nm, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale (NNI 2011). At this scale, the properties of materials are different with respect to their physical, chemical, and biological properties than at larger sizes. These new characteristics open the possibility of development of new materials with novelty properties.

  4. 4., accessed December 30, 2011.

  5. 5., accessed December 30, 2011.

  6. 6.

    A set of large low and middle income countries that are growing quickly and are therefore seen as particularly interesting in global competitive terms.


  1. Appelbaum RP, Parker R et al (2011) Developmental state and innovation: nanotechnology in China. Glob Netw 11(3):298–314

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Cozzens SE (2010) Building equity and equality into nanotechnology. In: Cozzens SE, Wetmore J (eds) Nanotechnology and the challenges of equity, equality, and development. Springer, Dordrecht

    Google Scholar 

  3. Cozzens SE (2012) Editor’s introduction: distributional consequences of emerging technologies. Technol Forecast Soc Chang 79(2):199–203

    Google Scholar 

  4. Cozzens SE, Wetmore J (eds) (2010) Yearbook of nanotechnology in society: the challenges of equity, equality and development. Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society. Springer, Dordrecht

  5. De Bellis N (2009) Bibliometrics and citation analysis: from the Science citation index to cybermetrics. Scarecrow Pr.,+bibliometrics&ots=1uRXAP64Fn&sig=-AMSStBddTzVeItTxGwPdY4-Jek. Accessed Mar 17, 2011

  6. Forster SP, Olveira S et al (2011) Nanotechnology in the market: promises and realities. Int J Nanotechnol 8(6–7):592–613

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Grimshaw DJ, Lewis S (2010) Solar power for the poor: facts and figures. Accessed May 24, 2012

  8. Gruere G, Narrod C et al (2011) Agricultural, food, and water nanotechnology for the poor. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  9. Gruère G, Narrod C et al (2011) Agricultural, food, and water nanotechnologies for the poor: Opportunities, constraints, and role of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. IFPRI discussion papers

  10. Invernizzi N (2010) Science Policy and Social Inclusion: Advances and Limits of Brazilian Nanotechnology Policy. In: Cozzens SE, Wetmore J (eds) Nanotechnology and the challenges of equity, equality, and development. Springer, Dordrecht

    Google Scholar 

  11. Kay L, Shapira P (2009) Developing nanotechnology in Latin America. J Nanopart Res 11(2):259–278

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Maclurcan D (2005) Nanotechnology and Developing Countries Part 2: What Realities? Azonano (Online) Accessed Dec 30, 2011

  13. Meridian-Institute (2006a) Nanotechnology, water, and development: workshop summary. Meridian Institute, Washington, D.C

    Google Scholar 

  14. Meridian-Institute (2006b) Overview and comparison of conventional and nano-based water treatment technologies. Meridian Institute, Washington, DC

    Google Scholar 

  15. Mowery DC (2011) Nanotechnology and the US national innovation system: continuity and change. J Technol Transfer 36(6):697–711

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Niosi J, Reid SE (2007) Biotechnology and nanotechnology: science-based enabling technologies as windows of opportunity for LDCs? World Dev 35(3):426–438

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Parker RA, Appelbaum RP (eds) (2012) Can emerging technologies make a difference in development? Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  18. Porter A, Youtie J et al (2007) Refining search terms for nanotechnology. J Nanopart Res doi:10.1007/s11051-007-9266-y

  19. Reid SE, Ramani SV (2012) The harnessing of biotechnology in India: which roads to travel? Technol Forecast Soc Chang 79(4):648–664

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Roco MC (2001) International strategy for nanotechnology research and development. J Nanopart Res 3(5–6):353–360

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Roco MC (2009) The potential of nanotechnology for clean water resources. In: Savage N, Diallo M, Duncan J, Street A, Sustich R (eds) Nanotechnology applications for clean water. William Andrew, Norwich

    Google Scholar 

  22. Salamanca-Buentello F, Persad DL et al (2005) Nanotechnology and the developing world. Plos Med 2(5):0383–0386

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Savage N, Diallo M et al (eds) (2009) Nanotechnology applications for clean water. William Andrew, Norwich

    Google Scholar 

  24. Shapira P, Wang J (2009) From lab to market? strategies and issues in the commercialization of nanotechnology in China. Asian Bus Manage 8(4):461–489

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Singer PA, Salamanca-Buentello F et al (2005) Hamessing nanotechnology to improve global equity. Issues Sci Technol 21(4):57–64

    Google Scholar 

  26. TERI (2009) A review of NT developments as applicable to developing countries. TERI Project: capability, governance and nanotechnology developments: a focus on India. Project Report: 2006ST21:D2 New Delhi, India, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)

Download references


This work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation through a graduate fellowship to Thomas Woodson and support from the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University under Cooperative Agreement No. 0531194. All opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Susan Cozzens.

Appendix A

Appendix A

Crop-specific search terms for the agri-food analysis

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Cozzens, S., Cortes, R., Soumonni, O. et al. Nanotechnology and the millennium development goals: water, energy, and agri-food. J Nanopart Res 15, 2001 (2013).

Download citation


  • Millennium development goals
  • Water
  • Energy
  • Agri-food