Climate change is high on the global agenda. While the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland, in December 2008, is an important step towards achieving an international agreement on climate change scheduled for the upcoming Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen at the end of 2009, policy makers and practitioners alike are increasingly looking for practical solutions. A new report by the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) offers three innovative solutions in responding to climate change, namely nanotechnology, ocean energy and forestry. The 46-page report goes beyond the technological, biological and procedural aspects of these solutions by critically assessing the opportunities and challenges that each type of innovation presents. This report addresses the question why these innovations - despite their large potential to reduce emissions, ocean energy alone could cover the world's electricity needs - have not yet reached the stage of mass commercialization
A new report prepared for the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research outlines an institutional model that meets the safety and security demands of human health, the environment and society. The report draws on an analysis of national and international approaches to nanotechnology regulation.
One of the key findings is that in the case of developing nanotechnologies, the place of classical regulation has been taken by precautionary measures such as observatories, voluntary codes of conduct and stakeholder dialogues. The development of an institutional model is proposed, the Scanning Probe Agency (SPA), as both a necessary and appropriate collective learning process and a means of generating public trust. Its guiding question would be: 'Is nanotechnology in good hands?'
The hydrogen that will power tomorrow's cars is not a naturally occurring resource that can be tapped by drilling a hole in the ground. Hydrogen has to be produced, and that can be done using a variety of resources. The cleanest by far of course would be renewable energy electrolysis: using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen; this electricity could be generated using renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar, geo- and hydrothermal power. As it stands, most of today's hydrogen production is 'dirty' - it is produced from methane in natural gas using high-temperature steam in what is called steam methane reforming. Many research groups around the world are working hard on developing cheap, clean and efficient technologies to produce hydrogen from water, particularly using sunlight (artificial photosynthesis). This would be the ultimate clean, renewable and abundant energy source. However, to become commercially viable, fuel cells have to overcome the barrier of high catalyst cost caused by the exclusive use of expensive platinum and platinum-based catalysts in the fuel-cell electrodes - the reason is that platinum is the most efficient electrocatalyst for accelerating chemical reactions in fuel cells. Scientists have found that platinum catalysts can be replaced with bacteria-produced hydrogenase enzymes that have nickel and iron in their active sites.
The performance of devices like organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), flexible solar cells, or plastic electronics is sensitive to moisture because water and oxygen molecules seep past the protective plastic layer over time and degrade the organic materials which form the core of these products. To protect these sensitive devices, barrier technologies have been developed that protect them from environmental degradation. State-of-the-art barrier materials employ metal oxide thin films, commonly from aluminum or silicon oxides, which provide excellent protection from atmospheric oxygen and water, but still suffer from problems. A new study demonstrates a nanocomposite material that can initiate self-healing upon the influx of water through pores and cracks by delivering titanium dioxide nanoparticles to the defective site, which ultimately slows the rate of moisture diffusion to the reactive electronic device.
When it comes to nanotechnologies, Americans have a big problem: Nanotechnology and its capacity to alter the fundamentals of nature, it seems, are failing the moral litmus test of religion. Survey results from the United States and Europe reveal a sharp contrast in the perception that nanotechnology is morally acceptable. Those views, according to the report, correlate directly with aggregate levels of religious views in each country surveyed. In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.
This week's successful international nanotechnology forum Rusnanotech in Moscow has put a spotlight on Russia's ambitions to catch up with the leading nanotechnology nations. While Russia has the money, the political will, and a well educated scientific base to be a leading player, it has completely missed the boat on developing its nanoscience programs and nanotechnology infrastructure. In terms of gross domestic product, Russia ranks as the eleventh largest economy in the world. But while many smaller countries such as Australia or South Korea, not to mention all of the bigger nations, have invested steadily and broadly in all areas of nanosciences and nanotechnologies for years now, Russia has had no coordinated science policy, no industrial policy, and no commercial industrial base to develop its nanotechnology capabilities. Until last year, that is. In April 2007, the Russian president signed off on a public policy paper that ordered a multi-billion dollar program to develop a world-class Russian nanotechnology industry by 2015.
Scientists are intensely researching how animals like spiders and geckos generate the high adhesion force that allows them to cling to walls and walk on ceilings, feet over their head. While this research so far has focused on novel materials like carbon nanotubes to replicate spider feet and gecko toes, a key challenge for materials engineers is the scaling up of such materials from small animals to, say, spiderman gloves that support a fully grown human. Complementing the ongoing gecko biomimetic materials research, Nicola M. Pugno, an Associate Professor of Structural Mechanics at the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, has developed what he termed Adhesive Optimization Laws.
Miniaturizing traditional laboratory assays to automated lab-on-a-chip devices holds tremendous potential for enabling multiplex, efficient, cost-effective and accurate pathogen sensing systems for both security and medical applications. These sensors could be used to detect bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella, but also other pathogens that could be used for bioterrorism. Traditional identification methods required time intensive cell culturing processes but novel pathogen sensors based on nanomaterials are promising vastly improved and speedy detection technologies. A recent example is a label-free sensor chip assembled from peptide nanotubes that enables the electrical detection of viruses with an extremely low detection limit. This could lead to compact super-sensitive pathogen detection chips for point of care applications that have a high tolerance against false-positive signals.