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Green shoots of Nanotechnology in red?

In the midst of discussions on nanotechnology innovation and novel applications across the whole spectrum of products and services, a report came out from The Friends of the Earth (FoE) accusing the nanotechnology community and innovations of not doing enough to reduce our impact on the environment.

The main focus of this 88-page report by the Friends of the Earth is to demonstrate how nanotechnology impacts our climate and our carbon footprint. By way of case studies the report compares the energy needed to produce nanomaterials with that for conventional materials such as aluminium or steel.

The comparison of the impact of nanomaterials is performed on the basis of the energy needed to make them and on the life cycle analysis. In an attempt to brand nanotechnology as 'energy inefficient' the authors may have overlooked a great number of benefits that lighter materials, more efficient fuels, better lubricants and better storage and generation of carbon-neutral energies. The calculation of the energy consumed at fabrication stage may indicate only a part of the story since with the development of other areas of modern technology that are heavily influenced by nanotechnology such as communications, information technology, transportation and many more, we tend to need less energy.

A somewhat different report, entitled Nanotech's Answer Key to the Energy Problem by Lux Research, has recently shed light on the same topic; in this report, Lux Research asserts that the adoption of six nano-enbled solutions would actually lead to a reduction in energy consumption by leading world economies such as Japan and US by as much as 12 %.

The authors of the FoE report also attempt to give an overview of the life cycle analysis of the most common nanoparticles and nanomaterials, which (to give them credit) is a good attempt at an intelligent conversation. Some case studies of nanotechnology-enabled applications were taken from a number of sectors where nanotechnology is or will be making an impact:

  • Photovoltaics
  • Nanocomposits for wind power generation, lighter transport
  • Hydrogen storage
  • Oil and gas extraction
  • Batteries
  • Supercapacitors
  • Nanocoatings and insulators
  • Nanolubricants
  • Fuel Catalysts

FoE reviews and acknowledges the progress made in the above sectors. Yet the report continues the argument that laboratory stage innovation in nanotechnology is sometimes presented as the saviour of the environment, while being more expensive, energy costly, less recyclable and in some cases more toxic than larger scale technology. Any technology development goes through several stages it takes money, energy and human resource to develop and to launch any innovation. The lab-based technology argument is therefore very limited.

A combined message from the FoE report is that a good attempt at intellectual discussion was made, and ecologically relevant applications of nanotechnology were surveyed. Yet, the authors have not managed to abstain from using an old rhetoric about sunscreens and nano-silver socks. This point was eloquently picked up and discussed in a recent NanoWerk Spotlight article.

Nanotechnology has never promised to rid us of fossil fuel addiction but, as other independent reports suggest, it is setting us on a path of recovery from that addiction.


Follow these links to find out more about Nanowerk's critical review of the FoE report, or to download the full FoE report.

News item was produced by NIA in association with BREC Solutions.

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