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Pro-Poor Nanotechnology Applications for Water: Characterizing and Contextualizing Private Sector Research and Development
Volume 9, Issue 3

Matthew Harsh and Thomas Woodson

Nanotechnology has been proposed as a possible solution to the dire problems caused by contaminated water in impoverished communities. We characterize the global landscape of nanotechnology research and development using bibliometric and patent data to ascertain how private firms are using nanotechnology to create improved filters and other technologies that might create benefits for the ‘poor.’ Research and development on nanotechnology applications for water is very international, but is occurring mostly in China, the USA and wealthy countries. Nanowater patents focus mostly on filtration systems. There are fewer patents related to sensors that detect pollutants, desalination and other technologies that might be ‘pro-poor,’ implying these technologies are not as close to development. A typology of firms shows that the role of nanotechnology in their business models varies, as does their commitment to poor communities in developing countries. At this point, the potential for nanotechnology to create pro-poor applications in the water sector has yet to be actualized. Contextualizing the analysis and its limits points to the importance of using other social science methods to understand specifics about how technologies are developed, manufactured, distributed and used in particular communities in order to better assess the pro-poor potential of emerging technologies.

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