Risks related to nanoparticles released into our environment are largely unknown. Nanoparticles could pose a threat to human health through water and food supplies as well as dispersal in the atmosphere. Large amounts could reduce the overall diversity or complexity of the biosphere. We do know that pharmaceuticals, plastics, and other substances are turning up in the food chains of humans and many other organisms, but the effects are just beginning to be studied, and the fate of nano-sized particles from emerging technologies is not yet understood.
From the standpoint of mining above grade, dispersed nanoparticles are difficult to detect and recover. This means that what begins as a valuable resource becomes waste. Gold, for example, has been used throughout history in quantities that could be recovered and reused repeatedly. Today it's being used in such tiny amounts in electronics that it's being "consumed" for the first time.
That's why I'm particularly interested in some of the new technologies that address detecting, separating, and recovering nano-sized resources.
A recent dMASS Resource Fix featured a molecular sorting technique that enables materials to be broken down into their constituent elements. Another profiled a new technology for detecting invisible amounts of gold and other metals that in the past would have been discarded.
Now another piece of the puzzle is emerging that could be an important safeguard. It's a sensor system made of "sticky electrodes" that can detect free nano-particles and help mitigate impacts on biological systems.
Innovations in resource detection may help manage risks associated with nanotechnology, as well as enhance resource recovery abilities.