Natural, incidental, and engineered nanomaterials and their impacts on the Earth system

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Science  29 Mar 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6434, eaau8299
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau8299

Nanomaterials in the Earth system

Nanomaterials have been part of the Earth system for billions of years, but human activities are changing the nature and amounts of these materials. Hochella Jr. et al. review sources and impacts of natural nanomaterials, which are not created directly through human actions; incidental nanomaterials, which form unintentionally during human activities; and engineered nanomaterials, which are created for specific applications. Knowledge of the properties of all three types as they cycle through the Earth system is essential for understanding and mitigating their long-term impacts on the environment and human health.

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Structured Abstract


Natural nanomaterials have always been abundant during Earth’s formation and throughout its evolution over the past 4.54 billion years. Incidental nanomaterials, which arise as a by-product from human activity, have become unintentionally abundant since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Nanomaterials can also be engineered to have unusual, tunable properties that can be used to improve products in applications from human health to electronics, and in energy, water, and food production. Engineered nanomaterials are very much a recent phenomenon, not yet a century old, and are just a small mass fraction of the natural and incidental varieties. As with natural and incidental nanomaterials, engineered nanomaterials can have both positive and negative consequences in our environment.

Despite the ubiquity of nanomaterials on Earth, only in the past 20 years or so have their impacts on the Earth system been studied intensively. This is mostly due to a much better understanding of the distinct behavior of materials at the nanoscale and to multiple advances in analytic techniques. This progress continues to expand rapidly as it becomes clear that nanomaterials are relevant from molecular to planetary dimensions and that they operate from the shortest to the longest time scales over the entire Earth system.


Nanomaterials can be defined as any organic, inorganic, or organometallic material that present chemical, physical, and/or electrical properties that change as a function of the size and shape of the material. This behavior is most often observed in the size range between 1 nm up to a few to several tens of nanometers in at least one dimension. These materials have very high proportions of surface atoms relative to interior ones. Also, they are often subject to property variation as a function of size owing to quantum confinement effects. Nanomaterial growth, dissolution or evaporation, surface reactivity, and aggregation states play key roles in their lifetime, behaviors, and local interactions in both natural and engineered environments, often with global consequences.

It is now possible to recognize and identify critical roles played by nanomaterials in vital Earth system components, including direct human impact. For example, nanomaterial surfaces may have been responsible for promoting the self-assembly of protocells in the origin of life and in the early evolution of bacterial cell walls. Also, weathering reactions on the continents produce various bioavailable iron (oxy)hydroxide natural and incidental nanomaterials, which are transported to the oceans via riverine and atmospheric pathways and which influence ocean surface primary productivity and thus the global carbon cycle. A third example involves nanomaterials in the atmosphere that travel locally, regionally, and globally. When inhaled, the smallest nanoparticles can pass through the alveolar membranes of the lungs and directly enter the bloodstream. From there, they enter vital organs, including the brain, with possible deleterious consequences.


Earth system nanoscience requires a convergent approach that combines physical, biological, and social sciences, as well as engineering and economic disciplines. This convergence will drive developments for all types of intelligent and anticipatory conceptual models assisted by new analytical techniques and computational simulations.

Ultimately, scientists must learn how to recognize key roles of natural, incidental, and engineered nanomaterials in the complex Earth system, so that this understanding can be included in models of Earth processes and Earth history, as well as in ethical considerations regarding their positive and negative effects on present and predicted future environmental and human health issues.

Modern Earth, from a nanoperspective.

Earth has thousands of terragrams of natural nanomaterials moving around the planet annually. This is now accompanied by 1 to 10 Tg of incidental nanomaterials formed in or delivered to the atmosphere from, for example, factory and transportation emissions, mining, forest fires, and urban processes, as well as less than a terragram annually from engineered nanomaterials that make their way into the environment mostly through wastewater treatment plants, holding ponds, and landfills. All of these, together, affect the entire Earth system.



Nanomaterials are critical components in the Earth system’s past, present, and future characteristics and behavior. They have been present since Earth’s origin in great abundance. Life, from the earliest cells to modern humans, has evolved in intimate association with naturally occurring nanomaterials. This synergy began to shift considerably with human industrialization. Particularly since the Industrial Revolution some two-and-a-half centuries ago, incidental nanomaterials (produced unintentionally by human activity) have been continuously produced and distributed worldwide. In some areas, they now rival the amount of naturally occurring nanomaterials. In the past half-century, engineered nanomaterials have been produced in very small amounts relative to the other two types of nanomaterials, but still in large enough quantities to make them a consequential component of the planet. All nanomaterials, regardless of their origin, have distinct chemical and physical properties throughout their size range, clearly setting them apart from their macroscopic equivalents and necessitating careful study. Following major advances in experimental, computational, analytical, and field approaches, it is becoming possible to better assess and understand all types and origins of nanomaterials in the Earth system. It is also now possible to frame their immediate and long-term impact on environmental and human health at local, regional, and global scales.

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