Nanotechnology could become the latest tool to be widely used to clean up sites contaminated with toxic chemicals.
Scientists at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, an academic institution based in Washington DC, have been carrying out field trials and believe that 'nanoremediation' could become a cheap alternative to current technological solutions to polluted land.
Their research comes with a caveat, however, acknowledging that the potential risks are poorly understood at the moment.
The research from the centre's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) provides an overview of current practices, potential environmental, health and safety implications and the possible future direction for nanoremediation.
The authors conclude that the technology could be an effective and economically viable alternative for some current site cleanup practices, but potential risks remain poorly understood.
The project's Dr Todd Kuiken said: "Despite the potentially high performance and low cost of nanoremediation, more research is needed to understand and prevent any potential adverse environmental impacts, particularly studies on full-scale ecosystem-wide impacts.
"To date, little research has been done."
In its 2004 report Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, the British Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering recommended that the use of free manufactured nanoparticles be prohibited for environmental applications such as remediation until further research on potential risks and benefits had been conducted.
The European Commission's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) called for further risk research in 2005 while acknowledging environmental remediation technology as one of nanotechnology's potential benefits.
The PEN study identifies 45 sites where nanomaterials have been used for soil and groundwater remediation, covering seven countries and 12 US states.
Most of the materials discussed are a form of nano-scale zero-valent iron that are injected into the ground in a slurry which provide a reducing environment that enables the breakdown of contaminants.
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