Can Nanotechnology Be Green?

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by: Joel Makower

An upcoming series of academic conferences will attempt to explore whether and how nanotechnology can address the principles of green chemistry and green engineering.

It should be interesting: When it comes to the environment, nanotechnology is no small matter.

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, launched last year by the Wilson Center and the Pew Charitable Trusts, is dedicated to help us anticipate and manage possible health and environmental implications of nanotechnology. The project's new GreenNano series, launching this week in Washington, D.C., aims to

. . . advance development of clean technologies using nanotechnology, to minimize the environmental and human health risks associated with the manufacture and use of nanotechnology products in general, and to encourage replacement of existing products with new nano products that are more environmentally friendly throughout their life-cycle.

Nanotechnology — the ability to measure, see, manipulate, and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) — has been heralded as a potential savior in addressing pressing environmental and energy challenges. Already, nanotech is being used to develop small, efficient, and cheap-to-make solar cells. Carbon nanotubes — long, thin, hollow cylinders formed by rolling up seamlessly a single layer of graphite — are seen as a cost-effective means of storing hydrogen for fuel cells, potentially solving one of the great obstacles in developing a hydrogen energy economy. Current research in nanotech suggests that the technology can lead to improved air and water filters, catalysts, and biomimicry products and applications. Here's one of the many recent stories of nanotech "green" applications — this one a more efficient, enviro-friendly alternative to industrial paints and coatings.

So, can nano be seen as "green"? The environmental appeal of all green or clean technologies is that they eliminate or minimize things that contribute to environmental problems: air and water emissions, greenhouse gases, nonrenewable or toxic substances or materials. To the extent that nanotech does this by requiring fewer materials, less energy, and fewer impacts on the air, land, and soil, it could be seen as green.

But not necessarily. The downsides of nano are the same as for many new technologies: long development timelines and assurances that there won't be any negative unintended consequences to people or the planet.

Most people understand that any new technology has risks, and I'm among those who believe that some the risks associated with nano have been overblown — Bill Joy's self-replicating, bacterium-sized nanorobots gobbling everything in sight comes to mind. But in the post-9/11 world, most of us are naturally more cautious, so any new nanotechnology will have to demonstrate that it not only is safe and cost-effective, but also incapable of being deployed for evil purposes, or of inadvertently running amok. In most of the clean-energy applications of nanotechnology that I've seen, such concerns should be pretty easy to laid to rest.

But there's no question that the emerging world of molecular manufacturing has risks. According to the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology:

Overuse of inexpensive products could cause widespread environmental damage. Attempts to control these and other risks may lead to abusive restrictions, or create demand for a black market that would be very risky and almost impossible to stop; small nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle, and fully dangerous. There are numerous severe risks-including several different kinds of risk-that cannot all be prevented with the same approach. Simple, one-track solutions cannot work. The right answer is unlikely to evolve without careful planning.

Still, a small but growing corps of researchers have been identifying environmentally beneficial applications of nano — sometimes referred to as green nanotech. For example, researchers with the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute contend that nanotechnology and green chemistry are uniquely compatible. Nanoscience can enable the discovery of greener products and processes. At the same time, they say, the tools of green chemistry can guide nano developments.

Can it be done? I'll be viewing the project with cautious optimism.

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