Nano Knows Best

The cross-sector growth of nanotechnologies poses particular opportunities - and challenges - for the water industry across the globe. David Spurr of Water Oracle, explains how the UK shape the new vision

The technical challenges facing the UK water industry are well documented and frequently debated. From generalities such as optimisation of existing assets and improving energy efficiency to specifics such as better detection and removal of trace contaminants. Nanotechnologies exist globally and are here to stay in areas as diverse as healthcare, information technology and energy storage, according to the Royal Society. Interest in the application of nanotechnology to the water industry is gaining momentum.

The worldwide transition towards the greater use of nanotechnologies is a significant opportunity for the UK. The global market in nano-enabled products is expected to grow from £1.4B in 2007 to £51B by 2015.

The water and environment sector contributed an estimated £53.7M in 2007, this is expected to rise to over £2.4B by 2015. The UK is well placed to meet this opportunity with the third highest number of nanotechnology companies in the world and the fourth largest number of nanotechnologies patents applied for globally. The water sector includes a very broad range of activity, from water and wastewater treatment, solid waste treatment and disposal, and air pollution management to in-building environment management, transport and storage of fluids. It has significant interaction with transport and energy, ground remediation and waste disposal or recycling, all of which are also examining the potential for nanotechnology.

What is nanotechnology? A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, or around 80,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Nanoparticles exist in nature. Every cell in a human body relies on nanosized protein complexes to function. The distance between atoms in a typical biological molecule is about The cross-sector growth of nanotechnologies poses particular opportunities – and challenges – for the water industry across the globe. David Spurr of Water Oracle, explains how the UK shape the new vision 10nm. The Technology Strategy Board defines a nanomaterial as having at least one dimension in the nanoscale (between about 1nm and 100nm) and specific properties that differ from those seen in bulk or larger materials. Nanomaterials can be particulate, fibre like, or sheet like. Nanotechnologies are those which incorporate or employ nanomaterials or involve processes performed at the nanoscale. Nanotechnology represents an entire scientific field, not just a single product or group of products.

This field is able to engineer high surface area catalysts many time more effective than conventional techniques, membranes with pores not just of specific size but specific shape and electrical specificity, structures with pores engineered for absorption of specific contaminants that can be released to order. The UK has the capability for bespoke design and engineering of nano-scale materials, prototyping for feasibility testing and further development and manufacture scale-up.

Nanotechnology can enable new approaches to the water industry such as nanosensors for quality control, tracers for effluent, purification technologies, catalysts, filters, and improved membranes for desalination. Nanoparticles: extremely large reactive surface area, high capacity and reactivity – readily absorb, or break down a range of polluting substance.

The Nano Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), in partnership with the Environmental Sustainability KTN and University College London, held a workshop in February aimed at raising the awareness of the possibilities offered by nanotechnologies and understanding the issues faced by water utilities and enduser industries.

Steve Kaye Anglian Water’s innovation manager outlined challenges faced by the water company and outlined the time scale over which he thought solutions might be available for adoption: five years for anaerobic wastewater treatment and integrated smart metering; 10 years for combined waste treatment and energy generation, real time condition monitoring and early warning failure.

TheNanoKTN has taken a view and considers that the largest likely penetration of the market by 2015 will be in the areas of detection and monitoring and industrial clean-up, with the adoption of technologies such as nanosensors capable of detecting minute traces of chemicals or organic compounds, and nanoscale bimetallic particles for in situ remediation.

Incremental adoption will certainly happen at the commodity equipment level as improved materials for seals, bearings and lubricants find their way into pumps or valves, and the ability to detect trace concentrations of contaminants is embodied in intelligent instruments.

Nanotechnology has the potential to unlock a new vision for the provision of water services. Water-intensive industries may adopt new nano-enabled water-efficient manufacturing processes with a consequent reduced demand for centralised water services. New membranes for highly specific separations, fuel cells capable of delivering energy from waste on a small scale, instrumentation systems built into selfdiagnosing system repair.

The challenge for regulators and policy makers is whether to promote and plan for disruptive innovation, or react if it happens. The prize for getting it right is the global market and export growth for the UK. The penalty for getting it wrong is a new generation of stranded assets and exclusion of imports of new technology from the UK only because we cannot afford to replace the existing conventional assets.

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