Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nanotechnology and Sustainable Environment

As the new technologies emerged to solve the human concerns and problems, they also tended to produce a new set of undesirable consequences that had ended up on the environment. In the case of United States, the invention of combustion engines created a booming industry of passenger car. On the other hand, other consequences such as emission of carbon dioxide and oil leakages from the cars have badly affected the environment causing her to be the world’s largest polluter. Currently, the new technology known as Nanotechnology (NT) is being praised as the possible candidate for overcoming society’s alarming concerns such as global warming. But other researchers argue that there are still a lot unknown about nano-materials and how their waste will react with the existing natural environment. Some point out that ethical and societal aspect must also be included in consideration before letting the technology for a broader use. Therefore, more concrete evidence is still needed to claim that nanotechnology can create the sustainable environment.

Nanotechnology is one of the very recent technologies. Its first definition came up in 1974 by Norio Taniguchi from Tokyo Science University. In his paper, he wrote that “nanotechnology mainly consist of the processing of, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule”1. Materials tend to behave differently in nanoscale and basically nanotechnology is a technology development that manipulates these materials’ properties to construct things. One nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter that is 100,000 times thinner than a strand of a hair2. Over the years, it has been one of the most interested fields and more and more disciplines are getting involved ranging from applied physics to biological engineering. Though more discoveries are being made, questions whether the technology is suitable for sustainable environment has not yet been answered.

One of the recent discoveries is the application of nanoelectrolytes and nanoelectrodes for the purposes of energy conversion and storage. Due to the societal concerns over global warming and oil depletion in Middle East, a new source of alternative energy or a better energy efficient technology is critically needed. The current energy sources are challenging the environment as well as the whole human race. Burning of fossil fuel and biomass has polluted the atmosphere, oceans and ground water for decades. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), the concentrations CO2 in the atmosphere increased from approximately 280 parts per million (ppm) in pre-industrial times to 382 ppm in 20063. The energy efficiency of the automobile is approximately 30 percent. By making more efficient for the same input of energy, the pollution on the environment can be reduced. Application of nanoelectrolytes and nanoelectrodes in batteries, fuel cells and supercapacitors could prove to be a good alternative. Dispersing nanoscale inorganic fillers in electrolytes such as ethylene oxide can increase the conductivity several folds reducing the frictional loss of energy between electrons4. These energy efficient nanoelectrolytes-containing batteries can be used in hybrid automobile and the world’s air pollution can be curtailed dramatically. Unlike the conventional batteries, these new electrolytes contain no corrosive and explosive liquid. Therefore, any leakage to the environment can be avoided. However, high conductivity can also cause the shorter calendar life of the batteries. The current electron conducting materials are not sufficient enough to stand the high conductivity for a long period of time. Unless a new conductor is found, these batteries will not be available for commercial use. The critics also raise the decomposition of the solid electrolytes. So far, there is no cheap and simple way to deal with solid electrolytes waste.

Objects made using the nanotechnology are lighter and smaller resulting less usage of natural resources. In 1965, co-founder of Intel Corporation, Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors that could be fit in a given area would double every 18 months for the next ten years5. His prediction came true and became known as Moore’s Law. And the nanotechnology again reconfirmed the law in 21st century. The most obvious example is iPod made by Apple Inc. Not only the size of the iPod is smaller than portable cassette and CD player but also its storage space of songs is about 100 times bigger. In others words, the resources needed to make these portable players are reduced about 100 times to achieve the same purpose. Therefore, natural resources are saved and energy demand is lowered. However, there are some factors from which the environment cannot benefit.

Nanoparticles do not exist outside of the laboratory or factory as free particles. In other words, it can easily react with the surrounding environment and possibly evolve into new structure. If the products containing nanoparticles are made available for commercial use and disposed into the landfills, it is certain they will end up in the rivers and oceans. Like the plastic particles that now cover the ocean floor, some particles will settle down there. Some particles will get into their digestive tracts of the fish and other aquatic organisms. But unlike the plastic, it is certain they will not just stay inert. For example, spherical Fullerene, also known as ‘buckyballs’, has been using in nanotechnology and biomedical applications ranging from electronics to carriers of imaging materials since 1985. However, some researchers later found that its molecules stay in groups in water and can be toxic to microorganisms and fish. Recently, researchers at Virginia Tech discovered these aggregates of molecules become smaller upon the addition of citrate. However, they admitted that “at the present time we don’t know how they (aggregates of molecules) will fall apart and what their products are”6.

In an another study, conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Desiree Plata and her colleagues, it was found that the process of making carbon nanotubes can have unintentional potentially harmful impacts on the environment. Carbon nanotubes are highly considered as the next “wonder material” because it is stronger than steel and more durable than diamonds. However, Plata found that the process of nanotubes can emit toxic hydrocarbons like those found in cigarette smoke and automobile tailpipe emissions. In the article published by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Plata warned that “It is the indiscriminant use of poorly understood chemical that causes environmental and public health costs”7. Therefore, it is important not to make a quick conclusion that will affect both environment and the public.

Every conclusion made on the effects of nanotechnology should include not only the current technical expertise but also societal and ethical aspects8. Otherwise, sustainable environment will not be achieved. Learning from the past scientific discoveries, the chance of resulting new problems after solving old problems must be limited. It is totally unethical to leave serious troubles for the future generations and their society. For example, if the utilitarian approach is used to asses the technology, the future generation should also be included in utilitarian calculus as the one of the major stakeholders.

Moreover, some business owners might take advantages of the societal concerns for their own benefit. Their activities must be watched closely by the government and the standard guidelines and rules must be set to meet the maximum overall benefit for the people and to lessen the impacts on the environment. Over the recent years, the interest on the nanotechnology has been the highest. In 2004 alone, the worldwide NT R&D expenditures surpassed $ 12.6 billion8. However, there is still no regulation regarding nanomaterials and their waste in the United States except the city of Berkeley, California. Thomas Hobbes stated that life without government or rules can lead to the life in the state of nature; “continual fear, and danger of violent death”9. Therefore, the larger governmental role is equally important for the sustainable world.

In the last decades, new problems and stress has been put on the environment. New “wonder” technology is critically needed to overcome these problems and to make the environment sustainable. Moreover, that technology must also meet the societal and ethical expectations. Though nanotechnology can provide a great deal of possibility to solve the current problems, more studies on the nanomaterials and their wastes are needed. Therefore, nanotechnology, so far, fails to achieve the sustainable environment and more concrete evidence is needed.


1. History of Nanotechnology. 24 May 2003. Creative Commons. 08 April 10, 2008.
2. Nanotechnology Takes Off. 27 March 2007. Quest TV/Radio. 08 April 2008.
3. Climate Change – Science. 20 December 2007. U.S Environmental Protection Agency. 09 April, 2008.
4. Antonino Salvatore Arico, Peter Bruce, Bruno Scrosati, Jean-Marie Tarascon & Walter van Schalkwijk. “Nanostructured Materials for Advanced Energy Conversion and Storage Device”. Nature Materials. 4 (2005): 366 -377.
5. Moore’s Law. 08 April, 2008. Jupitermedia Corporate Info. 09 April, 2008.
6. Citrate Appears to Control Buckyball Clumping But Environmental Concerns Remain. 06 April 2008. Virginia Tech. 09 April 2008.
7. Making Sure the Wonder Materials Don’t Become the Wonder Pollutant. 08 April 2008. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 09 April 2008.
8. Opinions on the Ethical, Legal and Social Aspects of Nanotechnologies. 13 February 2008. Wuppertal Institute (Germany). 09 April 2008.
9. Class Notes 8: Social Contract Theory. 31 January 2008. Dr. Aaron D. Levine, Georgia Institute of Technology. 08 April 2008.


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