Will Nanotech Save the Environment?

“Nanotechnology will reverse the harm done by the industrial revolution”.
Dr. Richard Smalley, head of the Nanotechnology Initiative at Rice University,

Reading about flying nanotubes and how science often goes off in strange, sometimes serendipitous, sometimes dangerous directions, one wonders where nanotech will land humankind environmentally? While I think the grey or green goo scenario is a little extreme, is it possible that nanotechnology will answer all our 1990’s environmental problems, or simply create a whole new bunch of difficult messes to clean up after?

“Molecular nanotechnology (MNT), the design and construction of macroscopic materials at the molecular level, will play a major part of solving the issues of both sustainable resource extraction and byproduct mitigation. Furthermore, MNT is the only technology that holds promise for achieving something like a sustainable First-World standard of living for the entire world” (Gillett 2002).

Possible ways for nanotechnology to address current environmental concerns include:

(a) Better catalysts and solid electrolytes for fuel cells, which can use fuels other than hydrogen at ambient temperatures;
(b) Defect-free materials, including composites based on defect-free fiber (such as nanotubes) matrices, yielding greater strength and reducing vehicular weight and fuel needs in transportation;
(c) High performance capacitors and batteries that would complement solar energy systems;
(d) Continued miniaturization (such continuing the trend from vacuum tube to transistor to microchip) reducing materials intensity, and in information and communications technology, continuing the progress towards the paperless office;
(e) Passive energy systems, such as electrochromic windows, that darken automatically as the intensity of sunlight increases;
(f) Light emitting diodes emitting white light, which will make heat-yielding incandescent and fluorescent globes obsolete, and reduce air conditioning requirements;
(g) Thermo-electric devices for geothermal energy production;
(h) Super-strength materials in turbines and wind generation units, subject to storm damage;
(i) Photovoltaic materials that can be “painted” onto surfaces, such as roofs;
(j) Powdered oxide semi-conductors for destruction of pollutants;
(k) Artificial photosynthesis to harness solar energy;
(l) Semi-permeable membranes in which only certain dissolved substances, such as pollutants can cross the membrane barrier;
(m) Use of carbon aerogels as electrosorption electrodes for water purification;
(n) Improved ion exchange resins for extracting minerals from waste streams;
(o) Bio-waste as feedstock for the chemical industry

Gillett (2000) concludes “(i) the phase-out of fossil fuels will be well advanced in another decade, and nanotechnology will play a great role in that phase-out; (ii) the five-millennium era of locating anomalous deposits to “dig up and cook” for metals extraction is coming to its close, probably over the next few decades and certainly within the next century; and (iiii) over the long term as the “distributed fabrication” promised by molecular nanotechnology becomes realized, global energy consumption for transportation will also drop massively. If almost any artifact can be fabricated locally, no longer will it be necessary to ship raw materials and finished goods halfway around the world, with the enormous energy consumption this entails”. Ironically, he notes that this will presage a new Stone Age.

Chen, Chau Jeng (Jeremy) (undated) Nanotechnology – Magic of Century 21st. http://www.gwforecast.gwu.edu/index.asp

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