October 22, 2003

Nanotech Meets the Environment

Making a Mole Hill out of a Mountain?

ETC Group today (October 2003) released a 6-page Communiqué on the use of nanotechnology-based products in the environment - products that are coming to market in the absence of both government oversight and public discussion. A recent large-scale application of a product touted to control soil erosion using nanotechnology highlights regulatory inadequacies and lack of clarity in the nanotech industry.

Nanotechnology - whose best-known commercial successes have thus far been stain-resistant fabrics, stronger and lighter tennis rackets, and transparent sunscreens - has spawned new environmental products to prevent erosion or to clean up contaminated sites.  While the companies claim these products will be beneficial to the ecosystem, in the absence of government regulatory oversight, the unknown short- and long-term implications raise concerns for health and for the environment.

In August and September of this year, a Utah-based company, Sequoia Pacific Research, participated in a $4 million Bureau of Indian Affairs contract to protect more than 1,400 acres of fire-ravaged land on a mountainside near Taos, New Mexico. Sequoia's SoilSET(TM) was used to aid the soil-stabilization effort.  SoilSET(TM) is a unique and reportedly organic and biodegradable product that undergoes a 4 nm-level electrochemical reaction when mixed with water. The reaction causes silicates in the soil and silicates in the product to self-assemble into a kind of crust that remains for up to a year.  The crust is claimed to prevent soil runoff and allows seeds blended into the product to establish themselves.

"As far as we know, this is the single largest environmental release involving a nanotechnology product.  Hopefully there is no problem, but without government evaluation and greater company clarity, we can't be sure of the product's appropriateness or safety," explains Jim Thomas at ETC Group's UK office.

Asked by ETC Group for the chemical composition of the product, Paul Clayson, Chief Operating Officer for Sequoia, declined to say citing the need for confidentiality pending patent approval.  When ETC Group inquired into the approval process for the product, Clayson said that the company had contacted a regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and was told that no approval was required. Yet the company advertises that the SoilSET(tm) process involves a unique nano-scale effect, causing the silicate particles in the soil and in the product to self-assemble into a resilient matrix.


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