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A framework for sustainable nanomaterial selection and design based on performance, hazard, and economic considerations


Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) and ENM-enabled products have emerged as potentially high-performance replacements to conventional materials and chemicals. As such, there is an urgent need to incorporate environmental and human health objectives into ENM selection and design processes. Here, an adapted framework based on the Ashby material selection strategy is presented as an enhanced selection and design process, which includes functional performance as well as environmental and human health considerations. The utility of this framework is demonstrated through two case studies, the design and selection of antimicrobial substances and conductive polymers, including ENMs, ENM-enabled products and their alternatives. Further, these case studies consider both the comparative efficacy and impacts at two scales: (i) a broad scale, where chemical/material classes are readily compared for primary decision-making, and (ii) within a chemical/material class, where physicochemical properties are manipulated to tailor the desired performance and environmental impact profile. Development and implementation of this framework can inform decision-making for the implementation of ENMs to facilitate promising applications and prevent unintended consequences.

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This publication was developed under Assistance Agreement No. RD83558001 (LCNano) awarded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has not been formally reviewed by the EPA. The views expressed in this document are solely those of the authors, and the EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned in this publication. This work was also supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (ERC-1449500; NEWT).

Author information

M.M.F., J.B.Z., D.L.P. and L.M.G. conceived and designed the reimagined framework. M.M.F. and S.S.C. performed the experiments and collected data. M.M.F. and S.S.C. analysed the data. M.M.F., S.S.C. and T.L.T. contributed materials/analysis tools. M.M.F., D.L.P., L.M.G. and J.B.Z. co-wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Julie B. Zimmerman.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Tables 1–15

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Portion of total National Nanotechnology Initiative funding dedicated to environment, health and safety.
Fig. 2: Performance of traditional antimicrobial chemicals and proposed nanomaterial substitutes.
Fig. 3: Co-optimization diagrams for chemical and nano-enabled antimicrobial agents.
Fig. 4: Selection charts for nano-enabled composites of polyaniline.
Fig. 5: Nanomaterial functional performance and embodied energy as a function of physical properties (size and shape).