Blowing hot air - how not to criticize nanotechnology

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Friends of the Earth (FoE) have just published a new report titled "Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?" As usual, the 'good cop, bad cop' team that writes this kind of document was at its best again. On one hand, there is a lot of really good information in this report, well researched and referenced, and it provides a very useful overview of what's going on in nanotechnology research and development in the climate/renewables fields – albeit with a very negative spin on it.
On the other hand, there seems to be a monkey sitting on each FoE editor's shoulder that constantly whispers "Are you kidding me? Boooring! Too positive! Too balanced! Not scary enough! Traitor - think of all the drowning polar bears!" But I guess there is a constituency to serve. Which, by the way, is exactly what happens on the other side of the spectrum as well, where some in industry, government, and market research paint the rosiest of pictures by mindlessly over-hyping the benefits, development timeframes, and economic scale of these new technologies.
Let's look at some of the issues detailed in the new FoE report and the misconceptions the whispering monkey forced upon the poor editors - including the obligatory pictures of children in hospital beds, polar bears on ice rafts, and dead fish.
Misconception No. 1: Just because it's nanoscale it is "nanotechnology"
I am sick and tired of reading about 'nanotechnology' socks and face creams. Given the multi-billion dollar nanotechnology R&D investments over the past years these socks better have rocket propulsion and the face creams at a minimum make you look like George Clooney or Claudia Schiffer – or both if you want to feel weird. (Side note: I herewith propose that every nanotechnology report and brochure in future has to be printed on special nanocoated paper that self-incinerates when the word "socks" are printed on it.)
Yet, guess what, that is exactly how the FoE report welcomes its readers: "Nanotechnology is not an unqualified environmental saviour nor will its widespread use in everything from socks to face creams enable us to pursue 'business as usual' while substantively reducing our environmental footprint."
Of all the examples they could have used they pick socks and face cream! Who has ever claimed that nanosilver in socks reduces our environmental footprint? I guess the whispering monkey went bonkers over this one…
But seriously, it is a questionable start to a critique of nanotechnology to point out that engineered nanoparticles can now be found in "cosmetics, sunscreens, clothing, paints, cleaning products, sporting goods, household appliances, surface coatings, agricultural chemicals, food packaging, 'health' supplements, industrial catalysts and building equipment." As a matter of fact, you can find lots of chemicals in these products, too. And many of them have not been properly tested for their health and environmental impacts. What you want to criticize is the impact of production technologies in the chemical industry – nano-, micro-, or whatever scale – and the usage of these chemicals in all aspects of our daily environment.
FoE writes that "Most nanoparticles are not developed or used for energy efficiency or to reduce a product's environmental footprint." True. But replace "nanoparticles" with "chemicals" and the statement sounds even more true. Where does that leave us?
Just because pigments and other particles are now produced with ever smaller diameters doesn't mean you can draw an artificial line at 100 nanometers and say that above it's a "chemical" and below it's a "nanomaterial". That is nonsense. Synthetic bulk nanopowders are chemicals; just with smaller diameters. They are a result of the chemical industry's continuous efforts to improve catalytic effects and other material properties of bulk chemicals by exploiting the surface and quantum effects of nanoscale materials. And as they succeed in mass-producing ever smaller particles, the required processes become more elaborate and often more energy-consuming and waste-producing. But that has been true all along the miniaturization path. It was true when particles reached micron size and it was true when they reached the 100nm threshold. Does that mean you are proposing a lower particle size threshold for chemicals production below which the cost to the environment becomes unacceptable? What level would that be? And what environmental impact is acceptable to you?
One more thing: The FoE authors either don't understand the distinction or they deliberately construct a false correlation when they start their introductory section titled "What is nanotechnology and how is it used?" with this statement: "Nanotechnology is a powerful new technology for taking apart and reconstructing nature at the atomic and molecular level". This sounds like they want to talk about sophisticated and molecular manufacturing type bottom-up nanotechnologies. But then they go on and mostly write about nanoparticles in the above-mentioned chemical industry context. Which is predominantly bottom-down. Milling, etching, electrospinning, vapor-phase and liquid-phase processes aren't exactly "reconstructing nature at the molecular level". They are heavy-duty chemical industrial processes.
You have to read to page 40 before you get to a section titled "Future energy and climate nanotechnologies" where they address more sophisticated applications.
Misconception No. 2: The performance of most nano-based renewable energy technologies lags behind conventional technologies
Actually, this is not a misconception but a fact - if you only care to take a snapshot in time today. But so what? Time has this irritating attribute of moving on. Nanotechnology applications are just emerging and there is no major field of technology ever that had a standing start. It took decades to build electricity or transportation infrastructures. It took decades to develop nuclear energy (not that that's a good thing; but it shows what you can achieve if industry and politicians throw their weight behind something. Imagine if all the nuclear energy dollars were available today to go into renewables and governments around the world were as determined to push it through… so let's convince them rather than fight them with extreme positions). All with lots of accidents, health and environmental hazards, and gazillions of investment dollars. Where does the expectation come from that nanotechnology applications shouldn't follow this path? Why, all of a sudden, is this an area where it is not allowed to learn from mistakes and improve products and processes over time until they reach their full potential?
The good thing about the FoE report is that it shines a spotlight on all the developments that are cause for concern – e.g. the still unclear issue about toxicological effects; the fate of nanomaterials in the environment and their potential to reach the food chain; toxic by-products; wasteful fabrication technologies. These issues need to be addressed by industry; scientists need to provide them with the tools and inventions to do that; and governments need to provide the regulatory framework to guide production and use of novel nanotechnology materials, application and devices. Most of it still missing today.
Misconception No. 3: Redirecting public funding from nanotechnology R&D to other sectors would provide more effective tools to tackle climate change
"Valuable public funding should be directed at areas that have the most capacity to deliver near term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions." The questionable logic of this statement implies that low- or no-tech alternatives to fighting climate change are not being pursued because some of the money is tied up in nanotechnology R&D. Compared to their national budgets, the amounts of public funding for nanotechnologies (for instance about $1.3 billion dollars in the U.S. on a federal budget of over $3500 billion; the figures for Europe are similar) is but a drop in the bucket. If there was a political will to fund any kind of climate change relevant technology, the funding for it could be found. But if you have a situation like in the U.S., where many leading politicians reject the notion that climate change is taking place or is man-made, then your issue is not funding. It's something more fundamental. And that is hard to change with rational facts – Tea Party, anyone?
And then this: "Critically reviewing the barriers to nanotechnology product development and commercialisation is essential for two key reasons. Firstly, the urgency of climate change demands that we act now to cut emissions. If nanotechnology products and applications are not going to provide certain and rapid solutions, we should instead focus on the practical and policy measures that will."
So you can't walk and chew gum at the same time?
In the view of Friends of the Earth, the illusion of green nanotechnology is just that – an illusion that is promoted by a range of nanotechnology proponents keen to practice self-deception. Of course FoE makes their case by hand-picking arguments and research that supports them and conveniently ignore others that doesn't. "Green nano does not currently exist in any meaningful sense – as an area of research, as industry practice, or as a viable alternative to the status quo."
They are wrong on the first one and, if you just look at the status quo, right on the second and third one. But concluding therefore that we should stop funding nanotechnology R&D and put an across-the-board moratorium on the commercialization of nanoproducts is like shooting the horse to prevent it from breaking a leg.
So, what now?
Criticizing and lobbying against dangerous (potentially and real) and harmful developments in industry is an important function in our open societies. It provides the necessary counterpart to purely economic interests. But criticism has to be constructive to be effective. Just pointing out where things could and do go wrong is but a first step. I really would love to see FoE compile a report where they tell us what they think should be done with regard to nanotechnology R&D – instead of pointing out all the things that should not be done. But their answer is to just put a stop to it and wait until science can come up with perfect solutions.
FoE's alternative action proposals – instead of nanotechnology – for energy and climate change all make sense, even though, ironically, some of them would require the same decades-long time horizon to implement that they so criticize with nanotech – smarter town planning, re-localized agriculture, transition to a steady-state economy. And on some issues you get envious about the good stuff they seem to be smoking. I mean, really? Guys? Did you watch the sad spectacle that happened in Copenhagen last December? And the best you can come up with on your "action list" is "International agreement on targets to reduce emissions, explicitly recognising Northern countries' climate debt"?
So, FoE, let's stay realistic and assume that nanotechnology is not going away; because industry will push ahead with new technologies and governments will support them to assure their economies' competitiveness. Of course you know that – but you can keep your eyes closed in idealistic contempt, enjoy your moral high-ground, and ask for an unrealistic moratorium on nanotech products. And world peace. And thereby assure that you stay on the fringe.
Or, you can hold your nose and try to actively work within the system to improve it – but with a chance of success. How about a top ten list of green nanotechnology applications that should be developed and commercialized within the next 3-5 years to make an impact on climate change? Be specific: what, why, how, who, targets, etc.? Then go out and rally the troops around it. I'm with you. You've got the brainpower; you've got the initiative; you've got the will – use it so that we all can benefit from it. How about it FoE? Stop bitching and start pitching… the world will be a better place for it.
Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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