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Posted: January 24, 2008

From zero to hero: the renaissance of nanotechnology

(Nanowerk News) Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu (DTT) has published its 2008 Technology Predictions. The study examines 10 emerging trends sure to have a major influence on the technology sector. The report includes recommendations from the DTT Technology, Media & Telecommunications industry group on how to take advantage of these emerging trends.
One of the ten trends deals with nanotechnology. DTT writes:
The public image of nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter at the atomic or molecular scale – has recently become tainted. This is despite mass market use of nanotechnology-enabled products, from smoother sun cream to portable MP3 players and faster processors.
The impact of nanotechnology on new or improved products and services has already been significant and its potential remains considerable. Matter behaves in fundamentally different ways on the nanometer scale. Previously inert materials can be transformed into catalysts; solids can become liquids, even at room temperature; insulators can become conductors. According to advocates, nanotechnology could even be the basis for the next industrial revolution.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the potential of nanotechnology, it has scared the public more than it has thrilled them. People are concerned about the possible malign consequences of the release, accidental or otherwise, of engineered nanoparticles into the environment. They are also uncertain about the fate and toxicity of nanoparticles and how they behave. The insurance industry has debated whether some nanotechnology risks can be covered as not all the potential negative impacts are known or can be quantified at this time.
One influential commentator has labeled nanotechnology as “gray goo”; it also has been suggested that it could be more threatening than nuclear power. On a personal level, there have been concerns about the long-term impact of nanotechnology based anti-wrinkle creams. In addition, some nano particles have been found to be carcinogenic. It is the subject of several official inquiries around the world and has even driven the plot of a bestselling novel. Along with the growing distrust of nanotechnology there has been a steady rise in concern over the environment. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that nanotechnology could have an important role to play in healing, rather than harming the planet. Therefore in 2008, the public’s demonization of nanotechnology could be reversed, and a green-tinged halo could replace its horns. Nanotechnology is already being used to address several environmental issues: generating clean power, reducing existing power consumption, providing drinkable water, cleaning contaminated land, reducing harmful emissions and enabling long-life portable power.
The combination of global population and economic growth generates an increasing need for energy. Carbon-based fuel reserves may be insufficient to meet demand, and, more worryingly, may have too great a negative impact on the global climate. So cleaner energies are required, one of the most appealing of which is solar power. But solar energy is not yet price competitive with oil, gas and nuclear energy, and costs up to $5 per watt. Nanotechnology could allow the manufacture of solar panels based on plastics instead of silicon. This could lower production costs, allow a greater range of form factors, and more than halve the cost of solar power to just $2 per watt, which is far closer to 2007 prices for fossil-fuel-derived electricity.
Nanotechnology can also be used to conserve energy. As highlighted in ‘Let there be light emitting diodes’, lighting represents a significant share of domestic power consumption. The efficiency of traditional incandescent light bulbs is very low, with most power being converted into heat, rather than light. Nanotechnology could enable an alternative light source, LEDs. Presently most LEDs are based on crystals; nanotechnology may allow the use of thin films of polymers or organic modules that could improve electroluminescence efficiency fourfold.
As highlighted in ‘The challenge and opportunity of water scarcity’, another of the world’s gravest concerns is water supply. One of the solutions to this problem is the conversion of salt water into drinkable water. Nanoscale membranes, based on carbon nanotubes, offer a dramatic improvement in productivity when compared to reverse osmosis, currently the most common form of desalination. The nanotechnology approach requires less energy and fewer filter cleaning agents than the current approach for an equivalent volume of drinking water.
Similarly, a major source of emissions is motor-vehicle exhaust. Nanotechnology catalytic converters could reduce the quantity of precious metals required to make a standard three-way converter, enhance the lifetime of the converter, increase efficiency and substantially reduce its cost.
Engineered nanoparticles are showing considerable promise as a means of cleaning up contaminated land and groundwater. Various industrial processes and pesticides create a class of pollutants called chlorinated hydrocarbons, some of which are known to suppress the human immune system and have been linked to cancer. Trials in the United States, Canada, and Germany have indicated that nanoparticles are capable of binding to such pollutants very efficiently, enabling safe collection and separation. With one-third of the world’s population obtaining their potable water from aquifers, the majority of which are polluted, nanotechnology could have a major impact by saving lives.
Billions of batteries, of all sizes, are manufactured every year, powering everything from toys to power tools. A large proportion of these are discarded once exhausted, which can cause the leakage of toxic residues. Nanotechnology is being used to develop an ultra long-life battery substitute based on reinvention of the capacitor, a centuries-old technology. Capacitors charge faster and last longer than conventional batteries; a nanotechnology-based ultra capacitor could recharge in seconds and provide power for many hours.
Public awareness of these issues and the environment in general, is growing daily, and as a result, its new public tagline may well start to shift nanotechnology from gray goo to green good.
Source: Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu
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