Friends of the Earth have just released a new report challenging claims that nanotechnology will lead to greener, more energy-efficient technologies, lower-impact technologies.

I’ve only had the chance to skim through the report so far, and so don’t have detailed comments on it.  But on my initial skim a number of things struck me:

  • The report is written from a specific perspective that questions the validity of claims made of nanotechnology – especially that it will “deliver energy technologies that are efficient, inexpensive and environmentally sound”
  • It is pretty comprehensive, covering nanotechnology and solar energy, wind energy, hydrogen energy, oil and gas extraction, batteries, supercapacitors, nanocoatings and insulators, catalysis and reinforced parts for airplanes and cars.
  • However, it doesn’t cover all nano-applications in the energy sector.  Two examples are the use of heterogeneous catalysts in vehicle exhausts and to reduce the energy overheads of a multitude of processes, the use of nanomaterials to develop more efficient power lines.
  • The report also tends to focus on areas where it is easier to construct position statements challenging statements on the positive use of nanomaterials.
  • Nevertheless, it appears to be a significant and well-written counterbalance to publications that promote the benefits of nanotechnology in the energy sector without deep and critical evaluation of the pros and cons of the technology.

Are the issues raised valid and in need of further exploration?  It’s worth reading for yourself to decide.  I’ve included the executive summary below – the full report (88 pages) is available here. Agree or disagree?  Feel free to comment below!

In a world increasingly concerned about climate change, resource depletion, pollution and water shortages, nanotechnology has been much heralded as a new environmental saviour. Proponents have claimed that nanotechnology will deliver energy technologies that are efficient, inexpensive and environmentally sound. They predict that highly precise nanoman- ufacturing and the use of smaller quantities of potent nanomaterials will break the tie between economic activity and resource use. In short, it is argued that nanotechnology will enable ongoing economic growth and the expansion of consumer culture at a vastly reduced environmental cost.

In this report, for the first time, Friends of the Earth puts the ‘green’ claims of industry under the microscope. Our investigation reveals that the nanotechnology industry has over-promised and under-delivered. Many of the claims made regarding nanotechnology’s environmental performance, and breakthroughs touted by companies claiming to be near market, are not matched by reality. Worse, the energy and environmental costs of the growing nano industry are far higher than expected.

We also reveal that despite their green rhetoric, governments in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan and Saudi Arabia are using public funds to develop nanotechnology to find and extract more oil and gas. The world’s biggest petrochemical companies, including Halliburton, Shell, BP America, Exxon Mobil and Petrobras have established a joint consortium to fund research to increase oil extraction.

The performance of nano-based renewables has been considerably less than predicted. Efficiency of solar energy conversion by nano solar panels is still about 10 percent behind that achieved by silicon panels. The technical challenges of bringing renewable energy laboratory achievements to market have been prohibitive in many instances. The United States President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology states that in 2009 only one percent of global nanotechnology-based products came from the energy and environmental sector.
The energy demands and environmental impacts of manufacturing nanomaterials are unexpectedly high. Manufacturing carbon nanofibers requires 13 to 50 times the energy required to manufacture smelting aluminium, and 95-360 times the energy to make steel, on an equal mass basis. A team of United States researchers has concluded that single walled carbon nanotubes may be “one of the most energy intensive materials known to humankind”.

Due to the large energy demands of manufacturing nanomaterials, even some nano applications in the energy saving sector will come at a net energy cost. For example even though strengthening windmill blades with carbon nanofibers would make the blades lighter, because of the energy required to manufacture the nanoblades, early life cycle analysis shows that it could be more energy efficient to use conventional windmill blades.

Much-touted nano developments in the hydrogen sector are at a very early stage. It is improbable that cars powered by renewable energy generated hydrogen will be on the roads in the next ten or twenty years – the period in which emissions cuts are critical. In the meantime, development of hydrogen cars entrenches reliance on fossil fuels to produce the hydrogen.

Most nanoproducts are not designed for the energy sector and will come at a net energy cost. Super strong nano golf clubs, wrinkle disguising nanocosmetics, and colour-enhanced television screens take a large quantity of energy to produce, while offering no environmental savings. Such nanoproducts greatly outnumber applications in which nano could deliver net energy savings.

The environmental demands of nanomanufacturing are higher than that of conventional materials. Nanomanufacturing is characterised by very high use of water and solvents. Large quantities of hazardous substances are used or generated as byproducts. Only one tenth of one percent of materials used to manufacture nanoproducts found in computers and electronic goods are contained in the final products. That is, 99.9 percent of materials used in manufacturing become waste products.

Despite the serious uncertainties, there is a growing body of research demonstrating that some nanomaterials used in energy generation, storage and efficiency applications can pose health and environmental risks. Carbon nanotubes are touted for use in electronics, energy applications, and specialty car and plane parts. However, early research shows that some forms of nanotubes can cause mesothelioma, the deadly cancer associated with asbestos exposure.

The release of nanomaterials to the environment could also result in accelerated generation of potent greenhouse gas emissions. Antibacterial nano silver is used widely in clothing, textiles, cleaning products, personal care products and surface coatings. Yet preliminary study shows that when nano silver is exposed to sludge, similar to that found in typical waste water treatment plants, four times the typical level of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide is released

Nanotechnology is not an unqualified environmental saviour nor will its widespread use in everything from socks to face creams enable us to pursue ‘business as usual’ while substantively reducing our environmental footprint. At best, such claims can be interpreted as the result of wishful thinking on the part of proponents; at worst they can be seen as misleading greenwash.

Nanotechnology is a powerful technology that has the potential to deliver novel approaches to the methods by which we harness, use, and store energy. Nevertheless, Friends of the Earth warns that overall, this technology will come at a huge energy and broader environmental cost. Nanotechnology may ultimately facilitate the next wave of expansion of the global economy, deepening our reliance on fossil fuels and existing hazardous chemicals, while introducing a new generation of hazards. Further, it may transform and integrate ever-more parts of nature into our systems of production and consumption.

Update 11/17/10:  Replaced local report links with link to FOE report web-page

Andrew Maynard