Are Renewable Energy Technologies Breeding Nano-Disaster?

For the past five years, Friends of the Earth has been seeking to generate the kind of political opposition to nanotechnology that kept genetically modified food products off European supermarket shelves. Friends of the Earth want nanotechnology-specific safety regulation, a labelling regime, producer-responsibility for end of life product recovery and recycling, and a ban on nanowaste export.

“There are strong commercial incentives for industry to exaggerate the positive social and environmental effects of nanotechnology and to understate the technical or commercial obstacles to successful product development,” according to the Friends of the Earth report: Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?

Nanotechnology in renewable energy systems does not deliver environmental improvement and money should not be wasted on it when the threat of global warming is so pressing, they argue.

Energy and environmental applications were the end-goal of almost 30% of US government investment in nanotechnology in 2008, and over 40% of the investment by US venture capital, (as well as 59% of nanotechnology patents that year) But only 1% of the nanotechnology-based products that entered the market in 2008 were for energy or environmental activities.

Hype and reality

The report questions the benefit of nanotechnology-enabled production developments, such as roll-to-roll printing of thin film solar panels. Silicon price drops and new production have kept long-life silicon-based solar panels very competitive.

Companies in the windpower sector claim that reinforcing their wind turbines with nano materials is stripping out weight and improving performance. The final nano material may improve energy generation, says Friends of the Earth, but manufacturing carbon nanofibers takes 95-360 times the energy needed to make the same mass of steel. Single walled carbon nanotubes may be the most energy-intensive material known to humankind.

The report also questions the energy savings or practicality of investments in nanotechnology to improve the performance of hydrogen cells, lubricants, batteries, capacitors and electrical insulating materials. Nano-scale sensors to improve the efficiency of oil drilling will lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, they argue.

Finally there are the unknown risks to health and environment should nanomaterial find its way into our food chains and bioaccumulate. According to Friends of the Earth, early studies show that nano forms of titanium dioxide, silver and carbon fullerenes, all touted for use in nano solar, can be toxic to people and the environment.

Why Pick on Nanotechnology?

But is it fair that Friends of the Earth turns a spotlight on the potential evils of nanotechnology? When campaigning on complex questions such as material-safety, it must be very tempting to pick out one technology and declare it ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It was on those very grounds that a previous Friends of the Earth report on nanotechnology (in sun creams) was criticized as “superficial” and “a disservice to good science and policy” by a surprising source – Richard Dennison, a scientist with the Environment Defense Fund.

The Environment Defense Fund is a pressure group that played a major role in the US ban on DDT in the 1960s and the removal of lead from petrol in the 1980s. Dennison is also a member of the US National Academy of Sciences' Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology.

“Like the authors, I'm all for thorough testing, labeling and demonstration of safety of nanoscale ingredients in sunscreens and other consumer products,” said Dennison. “But those needs extend well beyond nanoscale materials to all ingredients. A less selective rendition of the facts about the safety of sunscreens would better serve these causes – and consumer protection.”

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