Illustration redesigned by Devin Thorpe
The world’s smallest technology could solve some of the world’s biggest water pollution problems. After astonishing advances, including recent real-world fixes, it seems that nanotech may be the solution for cleaner lakes around the world. Existing nano water technology, already at use in treatment facilities, can be hacked to work in natural lakes and reservoirs. Marino Morikawa, a Peruvian-Japanese environmental scientist, demonstrated a nature-safe nano water purification system in 2014. His success with the Cascajo Wetlands sparked buzz about a possible follow-up with Lake Titicaca and intense curiosity about his method. Morikawa’s system is simple: create microscopic bubbles in the contaminated lake. As inspiring as this idea may seem at first, there are skeptics. The idea of cleaning up degraded natural wetlands and lakes has been around at least since the early 2000s, when the Journal of Nanoparticle Research published work on the potential of iron nanoparticles to suck chlorine compounds out of contaminated water. But it also seems nearly inevitable that nanoparticles released into natural aquifers, even with the best intentions, will eventually end up in living organisms. There, there’s little telling what they’ll do. They seem to biomagnify and bioaccumulate rapidly as they rise through the food chain, and their behavior after their digestion can be unpredictable. Some species, like northern pike, already seem to be reacting negatively to the presence of certain nanoparticles in their environment. Some watersheds, like the Cascajo Wetlands, maybe in such objectively bad shape that the presence of nanoparticles may seem like a good trade for clean water. This may ultimately prove to be a quick, even cosmetic fix, however. People who drink lake water, eat lake fish, and cook and bathe from the same source could rapidly accumulate nano-related health issues to replace the problems they only recently left behind. Since many of the most contaminated lakes exist in developing nations, it is reasonable to assume that many of the people who rely on them would not be in a position to afford advanced medical care for nano-related illnesses yet to be identified. There’s also the problem of targeted efficacy. A nanotech pollution fix that kills too many beneficial bacteria could potentially knock out the base of the food chain. Risk assessment will be critical as this early research becomes a mainstay of environmental recovery. With nanotechnology applied inappropriately, a beautiful, clear lake can be just as polluted as one overgrown with scum.
Nanotech filters may be a safer and more immediately useful answer. The work of Dr. Ben Hsiao of Stony Brook University, recently funded by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, may someday allow people who rely on contaminated water to filter cheaply as they need. His filtration system, which relies on nanofibers, is gravity-powered and destroys close to 100% of e. coli and MS2 bacteriophage virus present in tainted water. The Hsiao Research Group’s range is also remarkable: they’re also working on removing heavy metals and ammonium from water. It’s not hard to imagine a day when these systems will scale up and deal with pollution on a huge scale, especially since affordability is this research group’s watchword. Their reliance on biomimicry and membrane filtration could represent an answer to the problems of nanotech biomagnification if those solutions are organic in nature. A digestible solution is one that’s likely to stick. That returns nanotech’s future to the hands of the Peruvian-Japanese researcher who set out to save his beloved lake. If Marino Morikawa’s method is as safe (and tasty) as he claims, then it could be the humble breakout that finally ends the scourge of aquatic pollution.
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