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


Water is essential to all life, and its significance bridges many critical areas for society: food, energy, security, and the environment. Projected population growth in the coming decades and associated increases in demands for water exacerbate the mounting pressure to address water sustainability. Yet, only 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh water, and some of the most severe impacts of climate change are on our country’s water resources. For example, in 2012, droughts affected about two-thirds of the continental United States, impacting water supplies, tourism, transportation, energy, and fisheries – costing the agricultural sector alone $30 billion. In addition, the ground water in many of the Nation’s aquifers is being depleted at unsustainable rates, which necessitates drilling ever deeper to tap groundwater resources. Finally, water infrastructure is a critically important but sometimes overlooked aspect of water treatment and distribution. Both technological and sociopolitical solutions are required to address these problems.

US water usage mapThe small size and unique properties of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) are particularly promising for addressing the pressing technical challenges related to water quality and quantity. For example, the increased surface area and reactivity of ENMs can be exploited to create precious-metal-free catalysts for water purification, and the enhanced strength-to-weight properties of nanocomposites can be used to make stronger, lighter, and more durable piping systems and components. The goal of the Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (the “Water NSI”) is to take advantage of the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials to generate significant breakthroughs in addressing our Nation’s water challenges. This initiative is designed to aid in the development of technological solutions that can alleviate current stresses on the water supply and provide methods to sustainably utilize water resources in the future. The three specific thrusts of the Water NSI are as follows:

  1. Increase water availability using nanotechnology.
  2. Improve the efficiency of water delivery and use with nanotechnology.
  3. Enable next-generation water monitoring systems with nanotechnology.