Green Things Come in Small Packages: Assessing the Economic Impact and Sustainability of Green Nanotechnology

512px-fullerene_nanogears_-_gpn-2000-001535"Nanotechnologies have the potential to advance as 'instruments of sustainability' only if we encourage and witness broad expansion of green nano practices and technologies." -- David Rejeski, Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Structures built from DNA? Self-repairing micro-bots that recondition damaged brain tissue? Golf balls that fly straighter? Welcome to the tiny yet vast world of nanotechnology, a rapidly growing branch of science that deals with the manipulation of matter on molecular or atomic level. The ridiculously small scale of nanotechnology is hard to comprehend. A nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter, about the length of 10 hydrogen atoms lying next to each other. An average human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide.

"Nanotechnology is commonly considered to offer considerable promise extending from business opportunities throughout various industries to broader socio-economic benefits, especially in the context of pressing global challenges such as those related to energy, health care, clean water and climate change," according to a 2009 overview of sector by the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry.

GREEN ENGINEERING GOES MICROSCOPIC

One offshoot of this emergent field is green nanotechnology, which aims to support the ideals of sustainability to reduce negative externalities of various industrial and manufacturing processes that are harmful to the environment.

In the United States, green nanotechnology abides by the nine "Green Engineering" principles set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and which were developed by more than 65 engineers and scientists at the "Green Engineering: Defining the Principles" conference, held in Sandestin, Florida, in May 2003: 1) engineer processes and products holistically, use systems analysis, and integrate environmental impact assessment tools, 2) conserve and improve natural ecosystems while protecting human health and well-being; 3) use life-cycle thinking in all engineering activities; 4) ensure that all material and energy inputs and outputs are as inherently safe and benign as possible; 5) minimize depletion of natural resources; 6) strive to prevent waste; 7) develop and apply engineering solutions, while being cognizant of local geography, aspirations, and cultures; 8) create engineering solutions beyond current or dominant technologies; improve, innovate, and invent (technologies) to achieve sustainability; and 9) actively engage communities and stakeholders in development of engineering solutions.

HARD TO DEFINE, BUT WITH LOFTY GOALS, MONEY IS POURING IN

David Rejeski, Director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a Washington, DC-based joint initiative of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Pew Charitable Trusts, says that green nanotechnology has "three complementary goals: (a) advancing the development of clean technologies that use nanotechnology, (b) minimizing potential environmental and human health risks associated with the manufacture and use of nanotechnology products and (c) encouraging replacement of existing products with new nanoproducts that are more environmentally friendly throughout their life cycles."

Quantifying and assessing R&D data in nanotech investment is hard to do because, as the OECD asserts, "It is difficult to define a nanotechnology company," and "forecasts suffer from difficulties in defining the value-added of nanotechnology to existing manufacturing processes as well as its role for generating new products."

Still, in 2009, the agency suggested a "global market for nanotechnology products in the range of USD 150-3100 billion in the coming years." In September, New York won a bid to secure a landmark private investment from five of the world's leading technology firms that will bring $4.4 billion of private funds into developing the state's nanotechnology sector, defeating bids from nations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

A UNIVERSE OF USEFULNESS IN THE WORLD OF THE SMALL

On March 27, at the International Symposium on Assessing the Economic Impact of Nanotechnology held in Washington, DC, Philip Shapira and Jan Youtie, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, presented research that addressed the long-term economic benefit from green nanotechology investments, including job creation, product sales and sustainability improvements across a wide range of sectors. They highlighted the importance of full lifecycle assessments in understanding the impacts of nanotechnology on green economic development, specifically in the areas of energy, clean water and the environment.

In their paper, Shapira and Youtie identified several examples of green nanotechnology, including: "nano-enabled solar cells that use lower-cost organic materials, as opposed to current photovoltaic technologies that require rare materials such as platinum; nanogenerators that use piezoelectric materials such as zinc oxide nanowires to convert human movement into energy; energy storage applications in which nanotechnology materials improve existing batteries and nano-enabled fuel cells; thermal energy applications, such as nano-enabled insulation; fuel catalysis in which nanoparticles improve the production and refining of fuels and reduce emissions from automobiles; technologies used to provide safe drinking water through improved water treatment, desalination and reuse."

TEST BEFORE YOU INVEST: THE CALL FOR FULL LIFECYCLE ASSESSMENTS

"Nanotechnology promises to foster green and sustainable growth in many product and process areas," said Shapira, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of Public Policy and the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research at the Manchester Business School in the United Kingdom. "Although nanotechnology commercialization is still in its early phases, we need now to get a better sense of what markets will grow and how new nanotechnology products will impact sustainability. This includes balancing gains in efficiency and performance against the net energy, environmental, carbon and other costs associated with the production, use and end-of-life disposal or recycling of nanotechnology products."

"Scientists, policy-makers and other observers have found that some of the promise of prior rounds of technology was limited by not anticipating and considering societal concerns prior to the introduction of new products," said Youtie, the director of policy research services at Georgia Tech's Enterprise Innovation Institute. "For nanotechnology, it is vital that these issues are being considered even during the research and development stage, before products hit the market in significant quantities."

CAVEAT EMPTOR: NATURE CANNOT BE FOOLED

While nanotechnology holds much promise for a safer, greener and more sustainable world, investors should note well Shapira and Youtie's recommendation for full lifecycle assessments. The OECD, which sponsored the symposium with the US National Nanotechnology Initiative, has urged for the development of nanotechnology metrics and has noted that "investments and company involvement in nanotechnology developments are still poorly monitored."

"In examining the economic impact of these green nanotechnologies, we have to consider the lifecycle, which includes such issues as environmental health and safety, as well as the amount of energy required to produce materials such as carbon nanotubes," said Shapira.

A useful mantra for this or any emergent technology is "test before you invest." As the Nobel laureate American physicist Richard Feynman, who pioneered the field of quantum computing, once said, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

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NOTES

Schmidt, Karen F. Green Nanotechnology: It's Easier Than You Think. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. April 2007. Accessed March 31, 2012.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry. Nanotechnology: An Overview Based on Indicators and Statistics (STI Working Paper 2009/7). June 26, 2009. Accessed March 31, 2012.
Environmental Protection Agency. What Is Green Engineering. May 2003. Accessed March 31, 2012.
Ibid., 1.
Ibid., 2.
Office of the Governor of New York. Governor Cuomo Announces $4.4 Billion Investment by International Technology Group Led by Intel and IBM to Develop Next Generation Computer Chip Technology in New York. September 27, 2012. Accessed March 31, 2012.
Toon, John. Green Nanotechnology Investment: Researchers Help Assess Economic Impact of Nanotech on Green & Sustainable Growth. Georgia Institute of Technology. Research News & Publications Office. March 27, 2012. Accessed March 29, 2012.
Ibid.
Ibid.
Ibid., 2.
Ibid., 7.
Feynman, Richard P. Rogers' Commission Report into the Challenger Crash. Appendix F: Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle. June 1986. Accessed March 31, 2012.

image: Two "Fullerene Nano-gears" with multiple teeth. Researchers believe that one day, products can be constructed made of thousands of tiny machines made out of such nano-gears that can self-repair and adapt to the environment in which they exist. (Wikimedia Commons)

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