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Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge

A new Nanotechnology Signature Initiative will accelerate R&D that applies the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials to address our Nation’s water challenges.

This week at the White House Water Summit, Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative announced the launch of a new Nanotechnology Signature Initiative, Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge. The goal of this initiative is to take advantage of the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials to generate game-changing breakthroughs that can alleviate stresses on the water supply and enable sustainable use of our Nation’s water resources.

Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs) are multiagency initiatives designed to focus a spotlight on technology areas of national importance that may be more rapidly advanced through enhanced interagency coordination and collaboration. The NSI portfolio is dynamic, with an initiative retired when it is determined that a focus on that topical area is no longer necessary, and new initiatives launched when new priorities that can benefit from this approach emerge. Ongoing NSI’s focus on electronics, manufacturing, sensing, and informatics.

The small size and exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials are particularly promising for addressing the pressing technical challenges related to water quality and quantity. For example, the increased surface area—a cubic centimeter of nanoparticles has a surface area larger than a football field—and reactivity of nanometer-scale particles can be exploited to create catalysts for water purification that do not require rare or precious metals. And composites incorporating nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes might one day enable stronger, lighter, and more durable piping systems and components. Under this NSI, Federal agencies will coordinate and collaborate to more rapidly develop nanotechnology-enabled solutions in three main thrusts: increasing water availability; improving the efficiency of water delivery and use; and enabling next-generation water monitoring systems.

A technical “white paper” released by the agencies this week highlights key technical challenges for each thrust, identifies key objectives to overcome those challenges, and notes areas of research and development where nanotechnology promises to provide the needed solutions. By shining a spotlight on these areas, the new NSI will increase Federal coordination and collaboration, including with public and private stakeholders, which is vital to making progress in these areas. The additional focus and associated collective efforts will advance stewardship of water resources to support the essential food, energy, security, and environment needs of all stakeholders.

We applaud the commitment of the Federal agencies who will participate in this effort—the Department of Commerce/National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture. As made clear at this week’s White House Water Summit, the world’s water systems are under tremendous stress, and new and emerging technologies will play a critical role in ensuring a sustainable water future.

Lisa Friedersdorf is Deputy Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office at the White House National Science and Technology Council.

Lloyd Whitman is Assistant Director for Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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