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Nanotechnology and environmental performance: what lies beyond the shiny promises?



The nanotechnology industry has over-promised and under-delivered according to Friends of the Earth, which proposes taking a precautionary approach to nanotechnology products.

Nanotechnology has the potential to deliver novel approaches and transform the economy, although at a significant environmental and energy cost, says Friends of the Earth (FOE). It is, therefore, crucial to look beyond the shiny promises to understand how this far-reaching new technology is developing.

In a report entitled ‘Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?’ published in November 2010, the FOE questions the image of a new environmental saviour that proponents have claimed for nanotechnology. The campaigning organisation puts under the microscope claims made that nanotechnology will enable ongoing economic growth and expansion of consumer culture at a vastly reduced environmental cost.

“Nanotechnology is no quick techno-fix for our environmental problems,” says Ian Illuminato, Friends of the Earth US and co-author of the report. “At best it can make a small positive contribution to energy and climate problems, but it has the potential to make things much worse.”

Both the environmental cost and energy demands of the growing nano industry are significantly higher than expected. Manufacturing nanomaterials, such as high carbon nanofibres, requires 13 to 50 times the energy required to smelt aluminium and 95 to 360 times the energy needed to make steel.

Similarly, the environmental demands of nanomanufacturing are higher than for conventional materials. The production processes require the intensive use of water and solvents, while numerous hazardous substances are generated as by-products. Waste production is remarkable: 99.9% of all materials used in manufacturing nanocomponents for computers and electronic goods are waste.

The implementation of nanotechnology in the area of sustainable energy seems to be facing technical, environmental and economic challenges as well. The performance of nano-based renewables has been considerably less than predicted, while much-touted developments in the hydrogen sector are still at a very early stage. Only 1% of nanotechnology-based products came from the energy and environmental sector.

To address the pressing challenges effectively, the FOE makes a series of specific recommendations:

  • A moratorium should be imposed on commercialisation of nanoproducts until specific regulation is introduced to protect public, workers and the environment;
  • Governments should adopt a precautionary approach. Regulation is essential to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions and energy demands of nanoproducts, to reduce nanotoxicity risks, to ensure producers’ responsibility and to safeguard people’s right to know; and
  • Nanomaterials must be subject to safety assessments, while relevant data and methodologies must be placed in the public domain. Specialised research needs to focus on life-cycle analysis and the environmental impact of nanomanufacturing.

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