Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?
This extensive 2010 report, released by international environmentalist organization Friends of the
Earth, surveys many nanotechnology products being researched, developed, or already on the market related to energy production and storage. The authors of the report note that nanotechnology advocates have been promising huge gains in energy generation and storage efficiency and flexibility for many years; for the most part, these gains haven’t been realized. More troubling, according to the authors of the report, are the lack of life cycle analysis of various nanotech products, and “greenwashing” that take the form of claiming great gains in energy conversion in the field while completely ignoring the energy costs that have gone into the making of the products themselves, as well as the environmental risks associated with releasing nanoparticles into the environment.
The report notes the staggering amount of money and other resources being invested in nanotechnology research, and doesn’t deny that many advances have been made in laboratory conditions. Nonetheless, the authors find nanotechnology to be more detrimental than beneficial to the environment and to most people in the world in the case of every product class they analyze. What they are outlining, then, is a massive case of innovation failure. The problem is not that innovation isn’t happening: a great deal of money is producing a great deal of innovation. The problem is that all of this innovation is making things worse.
In every case, the report sees the potential gains of a given nanotechnology being equaled or exceeded by serious detriments. These detrimental effects usually include the following:
- Lack of life cycle analysis
- Life cycle analysis that reveals or suggests that the energy invested in the manufacture of special nanomaterials outweighs the energy savings that those nano products produce in their lifetime
- A lack of information on the toxicological and other detrimental effects that those products could have on human health or the environment.
- Efficiencies or performance in laboratory studies that aren’t seen in the field and/or cannot be economically productized.
Unrealistic expectations and goals that can only be realized on a timeline far exceeding the window in which critical climate change mitigation must take place.
The main thrust of this report, then, is that nanotech advocates have been quite myopic when it comes to evaluating the effects of these advancements, focusing entirely on the effects of deployed advances instead of considering the larger picture: the enlarged carbon footprints that result from producing these advanced materials. For instance, they find that when the entire life cycle of nano-reinforced wind turbines are considered, more energy goes into the manufacture of the carbon nanotubes used in such devices than is saved over the lifetime of their deployment vis-a-vis turbines manufactured from traditional materials. Nanotech companies can get away with this fudging by only publishing efficiency gains and leaving out manufacturing energy costs. And, as with most industries, the nano-energy industry tends to focus only on direct energy extraction costs, not on the (often much greater, but also extremely difficult to calculate) costs associated with the secondary effects of these technologies, such as health and environmental damage.
However, the report goes beyond such hidden costs, claiming that even if these costs were offset by efficiency gains, nanotechnology would still not be worth investing in because of the great capital expenditure that nanotech research and development entails, expenditure that the authors of the report see as mostly opportunity costs. The the global climate change crisis requires massive short-term intervention, and they see nanotechnology as siphoning off vital resources that could go into this effort, and perhaps also siphoning off galvanizing concern by promising a quick technological fix:
Huge amounts of public funding are already invested in nanotechnology research and development in the energy and environment sectors. Without rigorous life cycle analysis it is very possible that this money will be devoted to applications that offer negligible or no environmental savings, while imposing a new generation of environmental and health hazards. Scarce public funding is being made available to directly tackle climate change through practical, low-risk measures that could deliver outcomes now; the research funding poured into nanotechnology could come at a high opportunity cost. (42)
The authors also discuss the “rebound effect” of increased energy efficiency, whereby both producers and consumers alike tend to react to efficiency gains by increasing production and consumption. Thus technological efficiency gains rarely lead in the long run to decreased energy usage. Thus even if nanotechnology produced moderate efficiency gains, the net effect would not be that which the authors of the report desire: a major committement to reducing our carbon footprint. It is no wonder, then, that they see nanotechnology as net net negative (or at best mildly positive) in relation to overall energy expenditure, a series drain on resources of capital and will, and therefore dismiss “green nano” as a boondoggle:
Green nano does not currently exist in any meaningful sense – as an area of research, as industry practice, or as a viable alternative to the status quo. (60)
Is this report fair?
It is incredibly detailed as a survey of nano-enabled energy technologies, and presents a great deal of damning evidence to undercut promises and claims of drastically increased energy efficiency. The report provides necessary context for these claims by considering life cycle analysis and environmental impacts beyond direct carbon emissions. On the other hand, the authors are quick to dismiss nanotech promises in cases of uncertain information; and there are many cases of uncertain information. Their call for life cycle analysis to fill in some of these gaps is incredibly important. It may not be true in all cases, however, that uncertain nanotech benefits will be dwarfed by uncertain nanotech risks. That is, we can accept their general argument, and many of their specific ones, without dismissing all energy-related nanotech research as disingenuous or of dubious usefulness. What is needed is detailed life cycle analysis of emerging technologies, real-world testing of efficiency claims, and cost comparisons with alternative means of reducing carbon emissions. The authors rightly insist that nanotechnology can’t be considered a “drop in” replacement for traditional energy technologies. Ultimately, more than hope or hype is necessary to head off a global environmental disaster.
Read the full report (pdf) here.