Nanotechnology and Sustainability
22 Jun, 2007 05:04 pm
Nanotechnology has the potential to make a big impact on sustainability; but to achieve this potential, we need a multiple of cross disciplinary approaches to solve main issues that have been created by 150 years large scale industrialization. Nanotechnology is all about getting more function on less space. Efficiency and getting more with less is essential for sustainability. How can nanotechnology contribute to make energy conversion and energy storage more efficient or improve product durability?
Nanotechnology and clean technology: This year’s 10th NSTI nanotechnology conference in Santa Clara teamed up with the first conference on clean technology (1). ‘CleanTech’ has become a buzz word that is increasingly gaining attention since sustainability is an issue in the context of global warming, climate change and increasing cost of primary natural resources. The issue of sustainability has clearly caught the interest of the economic world. A strong support from the venture capital community in California can be traced to the fact that the long term perspective for any clean technology is very stable (2). Any new technology is however expensive at the beginning. But increasing energy cost and the cost of other natural resources make alternative energy sources and intelligent solutions more cost competitive while mass production of the new technology help to drive costs down. Are we aware that our society is transformed by the impact of high technology devices we use every day? Let us hope that government initiatives are put in place without delay to favor long term perspectives.
Energy and big things start small: One of the main issues about sustainability is the way we use energy. We use mostly non-renewable energy. The main demand of sustainable technology is that it makes a radical shift towards the use of renewable energy. There is plenty of sun energy shining on us and we have yet to learn how to make use of it. How can energy conversion and energy storage be improved? How can energy consumption be reduced through intelligent design or by intelligent system integration? We could imagine a system where mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy, stored as chemical energy and is recovered on demand. The roofs of our buildings could be covered with solar panels or collectors to convert sun light into thermal or electrical energy. Sun collectors combined with a Sterling engine show promising results (3). Electricity might soon flow in the installations of our house in both directions. Surplus energy from our roofs will provide electricity to the grid reducing overall consumption of non-renewable energy sources. Some of us will be skeptical about whether this can really happen but does the past not provide examples showing that big things start small? Learning from toy air planes, the Wright brothers were able to build a real airplane. They were not scientists and yet their approach was highly successful.
Facing facts: Nanotechnology has the potential to make a big impact on sustainability. But this will need a multiple of cross disciplinary approaches to solve main issues that resulted from 150 years of massive industrialization. It is not enough that a scientist makes a discovery when industry is based on non-renewable natural resources; it is not enough to design new products without knowing what is going to happen to it at the end of its lifetime. Today, Sustainability is the biggest challenge that humans face. It is not a question of getting more comfort and to live longer. The question is: Are we sufficiently intelligent to not destroy the fundamentals on which our life and our eco system are based on? Skeptical? It is enough to take a look at certain numbers to see that sooner or later we have to face the sustainability problem in all our undertakings.