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Nanotechnology holds huge potential for supplying clean water to the world’s poor, but many challenges must be overcome to realise it.
When the economist Fritz Schumacher coined the phrase "small is beautiful" more than 30 years ago, he was hoping to promote "intermediate technologies" that focus on local techniques, knowledge and materials, rather than high-tech solutions to problems facing the world’s poor.
But more recently, the phrase has taken on a different meaning as scientists and engineers develop nanotechnology — processes to control matter at an atomic or molecular level — and show that this field, too, can promote sustainable development.
Nowhere is the promise of nanotechnology stronger than in water treatment. Nanofiltration techniques and nanoparticles can reduce or eliminate contaminants in water and could help deliver a key Millennium Development Goal — halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by the year 2015.
The challenges are many, and not just technical. Some relate to health and safety, and the need for appropriate regulations to defend both. And some are more political, for example the need to make basic technologies both accessible to and controllable by the communities that need them most. Like any new technology, community acceptance is essential if nanotechnology is to effectively work in villages across the developing world, where water problems are often the most acute.
But there are many reasons to be optimistic that we can overcome these challenges and, by doing so, that nanotechnology can pioneer a new paradigm for applying modern technology to development needs. Its current applications show how modern science and technology can be successfully blended with concern for human and environmental health on the one hand, and a commitment to community engagement in technological innovation on the other.
They also demonstrate what can be achieved when researchers — and businesses — not only work to get their products out of developed country laboratories and into local developing world settings, but also collaborate with stakeholders in the developing world itself.
Nanotech in action
This week, we publish a set of articles to explore these aspects of nanotechnology for clean water.
A background article provides an overview of the main issues, summarising the hurdles the world faces to secure clean water for its poor, and how nanotechnology can help, including an overview of key initiatives underway (see ‘Nanotechnology for clean water: Facts and figures‘).
The development of nanosponges that soak up water and trap impurities is highlighted as an example of how nanotechnology could solve water purification problems in countries like South Africa — if testing and commercialising difficulties can be overcome (see ‘