Nanotechnology patenting trends through an environmental lens: analysis of materials and applications

  • Megan E. Leitch
  • Elizabeth Casman
  • Gregory V. Lowry


Many international groups study environmental health and safety (EHS) concerns surrounding the use of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs). These researchers frequently use the “Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies” (PEN) inventory of nano-enabled consumer products to prioritize types of ENMs to study because estimates of life-cycle ENM releases to the environment can be extrapolated from the database. An alternative “snapshot” of nanomaterials likely to enter commerce can be determined from the patent literature. The goal of this research was to provide an overview of nanotechnology intellectual property trends, complementary to the PEN consumer product database, to help identify potentially “risky” nanomaterials for study by the nano-EHS community. Ten years of nanotechnology patents were examined to determine the types of nano-functional materials being patented, the chemical compositions of the ENMs, and the products in which they are likely to appear. Patenting trends indicated different distributions of nano-enabled products and materials compared to the PEN database. Recent nanotechnology patenting is dominated by electrical and information technology applications rather than the hygienic and anti-fouling applications shown by PEN. There is an increasing emphasis on patenting of nano-scale layers, coatings, and other surface modifications rather than traditional nanoparticles, and there is widespread use of nano-functional semiconductor, ceramic, magnetic, and biological materials that are currently less studied by EHS professionals. These commonly patented products and the nano-functional materials they contain may warrant life-cycle evaluations to determine the potential for environmental exposure and toxicity. The patent and consumer product lists contribute different and complementary insights into the emerging nanotechnology industry and its potential for introducing nanomaterials into the environment.


Engineered nanomaterials Nanotechnology life-cycle assessment Nano-enabled products Environmental implications of nanotechnology Environmental release of nanomaterials Nanotoxicology Environmental nanotechnology 



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. 0750271 as well as by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency under NSF Cooperative Agreement EF-0830093, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the Environmental Protection Agency. This work has not been subjected to EPA review and no official endorsement should be inferred. Additional support came from the Prem Narain Srivastva Legacy Fellowship and the 9–11 GI Bill. We thank Dr. Stephen Tedeschi from Landon IP and Dr. Todd Kuiken from Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for their assistance in gathering datasets. We also thank Dr. Jurron Bradley from LUX research and Dr. Lee Branstetter for advice on patent analysis as well as Dr. Mark Kryder for discussions of the field of non-volatile memory. Finally, we thank Elijah Mayfield for assistance with WEKA and SIDE implementation, and summer research assistant Shawn Kollesar for his data-mining assistance.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Megan E. Leitch
    • 1
  • Elizabeth Casman
    • 2
  • Gregory V. Lowry
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT)Carnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT)Carnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA
  3. 3.Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT)Carnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

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