Industry and activists clash over environmental footprint of nanotechnology

Demonstration against nanotechnology in Australia. Photo: Friends of the Earth
Conflict grows between green campaigners and the nanotechnology sector following publication of a critical Friends of the Earth report into the industry's environmental impacts

Nanotechnology – which enables the manipulation of matter at an atomic or molecular level – has been heralded as an innovative approach to improving energy and resource efficiency.

But in a recently released report, Friends of the Earth scrutinised the nanotechnology industry’s claims that it can deliver energy efficient, inexpensive and environmentally sound solutions to problems such as climate change, resource depletion and pollution. The report concluded that the energy demands and environmental impacts are in fact 'unexpectedly high.'

The environmental group criticised the energy-intensive manufacture of nanomaterials – such as carbon nanofibres which require up to 360 times more energy than smelting aluminium on an equal mass basis – saying that this will come with a higher overall energy cost where the goal is supposedly increased energy efficiency, such as carbon nanofibre windmill blades.

However, Dr Martin Kemp of the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network told The Ecologist: ‘The nanotechnology community welcomes constructive debate in order to realise the benefits of nanotechnology. However, this report makes arguments which are illogical at best and factually lacking at worst, but with overwhelmingly negative conclusions.’

‘The environmental community should be leading the way in lobbying governments to increase spending on research and development in nanotechnology in order to speed up the commercialisation of the nano-enabled renewable energy, water treatment, and advanced healthcare solutions which only nanotechnology can achieve,’ he added.

Others working in the industry have lambasted the report too, saying that the new technology will bring environmental benefits as it develops. ‘The assertion that nanotechnology fails to deliver benefits for global warming, resource depletion and pollution but instead increases energy use and creates environmental risks is ridiculous,’ Professor Peter Dobson, the Research Councils UK strategic advisor for nanotechnology said. ‘In fact the opposite is true. Nanotechnology is going to provide the solutions to mitigate many of the problems we face.’

‘Nanotechnology is still an emerging area of science and innovation and as such one cannot expect it to be the panacea to all ills including global warming and pollution. But it shows promise,’ said Professor Richard Owen, programme coordinator for the UK Environmental Nanoscience Initiative.

The co-author of the report, Ian Illuminato, says that despite what the industry claims, nanotechnology will not significantly contribute to energy saving and greenhouse gas reduction. ‘In practice it will do the opposite: giving politicians an excuse to continue with "business as usual", at the expense of smart, informed technology choices and behavioural change.’

Nanotechnology is already used in hundreds of everyday products from food packaging to computer keyboards.

The manipulation of materials on a nano-scale (a nanometre is a millonth of a millimetre or about one eighty thousandth the size of a human hair), enables them to take on new properties compared to their larger form.

Environmentalists fear the technology could increase the world's reliance on oil, gas and dangerous chemicals.
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