Skip to content

Environmental Nanoscience Initiative

Rural landscape

Nanoscience is the science of the very small, on the scale of one billionth of a metre. At this scale some materials behave radically different from larger forms of the same substances, and can offer huge potential economic, health and environmental benefits.

But if these particles are behaving differently, do they pose greater risks once they enter the environment? The Environmental Nanoscience Initiative was set up by NERC, Defra and the Environment Agency to begin to answer some questions of basic nanosciences research; into fate and behaviour, ecotoxicology and ecological effects of engineering nanoparticles.

Environmental Nanoscience Initiative finale event

Closing date: 13 Nov

22 Oct 2015

NERC would like to invite registrations to attend the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative finale event on 10 December 2015 in London, which will showcase research into the impact of nanomaterials on the environment.

Programme background

Nanotechnology is the design and manufacture of substances typically between one and several hundred billionths of a metre in size. In this size range the properties of substances can change quite radically, offering potentially large socio-economic, health and environmental benefits. For example, nanofuel additives could help reduce emissions and particles from diesel engines. Nanoparticles may also be able to help remove persistent pollutants in soils and groundwaters. The potential for use of nanomaterials is huge and is reflected by an explosion in global research and development investment.

Nanomaterials and the environment: risks and benefits

If nanoparticles have different properties from larger particles of the same material, do they also pose greater health risks once they enter the environment? Are they are more persistent, or more toxic? Do they affect the behaviour and toxicity of other substances in the environment?

This was one of the issues examined by The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers' independent report on nanotechnologies, commissioned by the UK Government. It showed that there is very little data on the fate, behaviour, toxicity or ecological effects of manufactured nanoparticles once they enter the environment. However, pulmonary toxicology studies with so - called incidental nanoparticles (eg atmospheric pollution and coal dust) suggest that the risks associated with nanoparticles in the environment need to be investigated further.

Understanding the risks: a UK government programme of research

In November 2005 the UK government published a programme of research to assess the risks posed by nanoparticles. A number of the 19 research objectives directly relate to understanding risks to health from environmental exposure. A good number of the questions we need to answer are in fact questions of basic nanosciences research; into fate and behaviour, ecotoxicology and ecological effects. The Environmental Nanosciences Intiative was set up by NERC, Defra and the Environment Agency to provide the mechanism to address this. It will provide small exploratory awards (pump priming) to researchers, and the data will be used to build the evidence base to inform the development of government policy.

Programme partners

  • Natural Environment Research Council
  • Defra
  • Environment Agency
  • Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council
  • US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council
  • Medical Research Council
  • Department of Health

Do good things really come in small packages? Highlights from the ENI programme and further information are presented in the 'Small World' brochure (PDF, 3.3MB).

Phase 2:


2009 - 2015

Can I apply for a grant?

No. This call is now closed.


There are no calls for funding currently open on this programme.

Phase 1:


2006 - 2008

Can I apply for a grant?

This phase of the programme is complete.


£750,000 for small grants.

Programme awards

Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web.

View details of funded applications - external link

The following case studies are linked to this research programme. Full details of each case study are available from NERC's Science Impacts Database.

New 'nano-toxin' sensor for continuous monitoring licensed to Modern Water (PDF, 57KB)
Synopsis: A miniature 'mimic membrane' on a chip, that detects dissolved pollutants down to the nano-scale, has been licensed to a UK-based company specialising in protecting water supplies and in water and wastewater treatment.

Managing nanoparticle wastes from consumer products (PDF, 56KB)
Synopsis: A new discovery about nanoparticle behaviour in sewage treatment plants will improve the environmental management of nanoparticle wastes from foods, cosmetics, medicines and other products.