Nanotechnology: Opportunities and Risks

The German Environment Agency evaluates and reviews the aspects of nanotechnology relevant to the environment. What is nanotechnology? What opportunities and risks does it hold?

Nanotechnology refers to the production, research or application of particles or surfaces which are smaller than 100 nanometres (10 millionths of a metre). The German Environment Agency (UBA) evaluates and reviews the aspects of this technology which are relevant to the environment. It has focussed on the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology since 2001.

What are some of the applications for nanotechnology?

Engineered nanomaterials have new properties which are used specifically to develop new products and applications. Nanotechnology is expected to generate a number of innovative developments in different technical fields – energy technology, chemical production technology, information- and communication technology  as well as many applications in society and industry. Nanotechnology products like scratch-proof coatings or organic solar cells are capturing the market with a positive impact on the economy. In 2013 some 2,300 institutions in Germany (SMEs, large corporations, higher education institutions, research institutes) employed more than 70,000 people in the field of nanotechnology. The 2013 estimated turnover of nanotechnological products in Germany was about 15 billion euros.

What opportunities and risks does nanotechnology harbour for the environment?

The environment can benefit from nanotechnology since it promises a conservation of raw materials, reduction of the production of harmful by-products, increased efficiency in energy conversion, a reduction of energy consumption, and the elimination of pollutants from the environment. There is very little data available on the subject up to now. The UBA commissioned a series of studies which demonstrate, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology processes and products for the environment and for environmental protection. The studies are entitled: “Environmental Relief Effects through Nanotechnological Processes and Products” (in German with English-language summary) (Bremen University); “Applications of Nanomaterials in Environmental Protection” (in German with English-language summary) (Golder Associates, Celle); “Analysis and Strategic Management of Nanoproducts with Regard to their Sustainability Potential – Nano-Sustainability Check” (Öko-Institut, Freiburg).

Current activities of the German Environment Agency

For information about current activities and research and development projects of the German Environment Agency please visit our sites Good to know and Research and development projects.

UBA publications on nanotechnology