Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?

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

13 thoughts on “Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?”

  1. Unfortunately too many of these ‘position papers’ are written from a pre defined position with evidence selectively used to support that position. The same is true for both the nanotech ‘boosters’ who have long claimed irrational market forecasts to be correct, and the environmental groups who start from the belief that technology/capitalism/etc is wrong.

    Such an adversarial style of debate may go down well at Prime Ministers Questions, but doesn’t really add anything to the wider understanding of the impact of emerging technologies.

    1. Tim, it’s unfortunate that you find the nature of this report so adversarial.
      I find it very interesting to read that the one of the first applications of nanotechnology to the energy sector are towards the extraction of yet more oil and gas. Because oil and gas is just what we need more of right now.

      Though I guess if I’d worked with the oil and gas sector, I would find those facts quite confronting….

      1. Gregory,

        I’ve also worked with the UNDP and governments across Asia and Africa on utilising technology to alleviate poverty and suffering through providing access to clean water and better healthcare at the lowest possible cost.

        All technologies have multiple uses, and unforeseen consequences (both positive and negative). Whether or not you agree with the applications of technology – heart surgery vs abortions for example – you can neither restrict science or human creativity. The best we can do is to make sure we have structures in place manage it responsibly and try to identify and solve problems before they get out of hand.

  2. In my opinion, this report is packaged in a way that inhibits serious dialog. It seems to me this is really two separate reports.
    One report is a scientific one, itemizing legitimate issues that ought to be taken into account before specific nanotechnologies are implemented. From this perspective, the report seems to meet your final bullet point: “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.” Although as you point out above, there are specific areas that were skipped, and while not being knowledgeable in this field, I suspect there may be other pertinent applications of nanotechnology that were also omitted. However, this midsection of the report seems to me to be somewhat de-legitimized by the stridency of the introduction and conclusion.
    The other report is a value and policy based one. . The title: “Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?” is obviously intended to be an attention grabber. Combining that with some of the concluding statements such as this one on page 69: “In many ways nanotechnology offers the ultimate attempted techno-fix to problems that require integrated social, economic and political solutions.” causes this report to seem to attempt to fight off one extreme value and policy point of view with another. This does not strike me as the optimum way to foster a thoughtful conversation.
    I think it should be obvious that discussions of values, and the policies needed to implement those values, are significant and ought to be held. I believe that Friends of the Earth is expressing a key value here on page 69: “Other changes are even more important than technology, and equally technically possible”. They go on to list a number of non-nanotechnology related items, from: “Support Renewable Energy Solutions” to “Sustainable re-localized Agriculture”. They seem to see those values intersecting with policy regarding nanotechnology in this statement highlighted on page 70: “Encouraging a dependence on unproven nanotechnologies and other techno-fixes will jeopardise [sic] our ability to successfully confront the climate change crisis.”
    There are a number of issues raised here that warrant serious conversations that our society ought to be having. Unfortunately, I believe that it will be difficult to hold these conversations unless we do a better job of sorting out what we want to talk about.

    1. And that point of Tim’s is KEY. I’ve been slow to adopt compact fluorescent bulbs for three reasons: I don’t like the colour of the light they shed (makes me feel like I’m getting cataracts); their initially exorbitant price (who cares if a lightbulb’s going to last five years; if it costs 1000% more than the standard ones you’ve been buying it’s going to be a very tough sell, no matter how green you want to be); and initially complicated disposal requirements. I was, however, delighted to discover when I had new light fixtures installed recently that they actually specified CF bulbs (and the electrician said they were the first fixtures he’d ever seen that did); that the bulbs themselves were now in the ‘it makes sense to buy them’ price range of about $2 each, and one no longer has to hunt high and low for retailers who’ll take the burnt out bulbs. So we’ve reached the ‘resistance is futile’ point with CF bulbs – and that’s the point any new technology has to reach before it can gain widespread acceptance and adoption. Getting to that point can sometimes be achieved a lot sooner when market conditions vary (sudden shortage of regular lightbulbs or huge increase in their price) or when there’s governmental intervention of some sort (phasing out of legality of a technology or incentives to adopt a new one). But generally these things take time – and even in the 21st C we’re talking a decade or more.

  3. I think that Tim Harper’s point highlighted by you above is very significant. I also think it is worth noting Tim Harper’s comment about leaving it to the professional report readers (you) to wade through the details of this report. I believe that it should be obvious to FOE that their headline choice, and the statements that I called, in my comment above, the “values” part of their report, set a tone and reaches further than the body of their text. If they want to say that they think other changes are more important than technological ones then that is what they should be writing about. If a rejection of technological solutions is a stated value then it is not necessary to pick apart or itemize the detrimental effects of any given technology. I contend that that is an entirely different report than one that evaluates the merits and problems of specific nanotechnology applications as to how they impact climate change. Mixing the two does not lead to effective communication, in my opinion.
    As Tim Harper asks: ” How do we encourage applications that could limit climate change and protect the environment while monitoring and averting any unintended risks and consequences? ”
    An effective report on this issue is not likely to come from a group that rejects “unproven technofixes”. Partly because of course, as Tim Harper pointed out and you highlight above, technology takes time to mature.

  4. I read the review.

    Often nanotechnology is highly energy intensive. However i wonder the intention behind this article seeming that the public is grossly misinformed upon many fronts. For example, the label of nanotechnology applies to more the energy technology, yet the propensity of the public to ignore the details of an issue is paramount and the people who publish these reports know this. Equating nanotechnology with bad, although appropriate from a current state of the industry perspective, has the potential to cause negative consequences across the board. I do think that we are seeing the start and growth of an anti-nanotech movement. In truth, who really needs thousands of scientists probing away on the folding mechanics of proteins or trying to create the perfect ordered battery matrix?

    If anything this report musters an incentive for a redesign of the energy collecting and storage systems for laboratories.

  5. Looking at the Friends of the Earth website, somewhere in between this principle: “Climate responses should be transformational”, and policies such as this one: “Exclude false solutions”, or this one: “Strictly limit any carbon trading schemes so that financial risks are minimized”; and also including some of the statements noted above from the nanotechnology report; perhaps FOE could use a little risk management counseling.

  6. Aw, this was an exceptionally nice post. Finding the time and
    actual effort to produce a good article… but what can I say…
    I procrastinate a lot and don’t manage to get nearly anything done.

Comments are closed.