Can nanotechnology be good for climate?

The UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has recently released a long report stating that nanotechnology might offer hope for climate change. This study has focused on 5 specific areas: fuel additives, solar cells, the hydrogen economy, batteries and insulation. The conclusion of this report is that nanotechnology could contribute to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20 per cent by 2050. The largest reduction would come from using hydrogen as a source of energy. Unfortunately, this might be very difficult and will take years.

The UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has recently released a long report stating that nanotechnology might offer hope for climate change. This study has focused on 5 specific areas: fuel additives, solar cells, the hydrogen economy, batteries and insulation. The conclusion of this report is that nanotechnology could contribute to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 20 per cent by 2050. The largest reduction would come from using hydrogen as a source of energy. Unfortunately, this might be very difficult and will take years.

Summary of environmentally beneficial nanotechnologies

The figure above is a summary of how nanotechnologies could be beneficial for our environment (Credit: Defra). This figure has been extracted from the report named "Environmentally Beneficial Nanotechnologies: Barriers and Opportunities" (PDF format, 95 pages, 747 KB). This report, published on May 14, 2007, has been prepared by Ben Walsh, from Oakdene Hollins, a sustainability consultant.

Here are a few quotes about the five areas where nanotechnologies could be used to improve our environment.

  • Fuel additives: Nanoparticle additives have been shown to increase the fuel efficiency of diesel engines by approximately 5%. This could be implemented immediately across the UK diesel powered fleet.
  • Solar cells: The high prices of solar cells are inhibiting their installation into distributed power generation, reducing energy generation from renewables. Nanotechnology may deliver more benefits in significantly decreasing the cost of production of solar cells.
  • The hydrogen economy: Hydrogen powered vehicles could eliminate all noxious emissions from road transport, which would improve public health. [But] the technology is estimated to be 40 years away from universal deployment.
  • Batteries and supercapacitors: Recent advances in battery technology have made the range and power of electric vehicles more practical. Issues still surround the charge time. Nanotechnology may provide a remedy to this problem allowing electric vehicles to be recharged in less than ten minutes.
  • Insulation: Cavity and loft insulation are cheap and effective, however, there are no easy methods for insulating solid walled buildings. Nanotechnology may provide a solution which, if an effective insulation could be found with similar properties to standard cavity insulation.

Below are the two last paragraphs about this very interesting 95-page report.

Nanotechnology is a relatively 'young' science, therefore there is a need for significant research and development expenditure before the science yields large breakthroughs. In certain examples, however, nanotechnology is mature enough to be readily incorporated into products. Under these circumstances, the social and political barriers dominate. The incorporation of nanotechnology into larger systems may also be a major barrier in the development of new products.
Over the coming decades, nanotechnology is predicted to become ubiquitous and to revolutionise the functionality of products. However this view needs to be tempered by findings from this report. The near term effects of nanotechnology are significant, yet incremental. The long term predictions for some of the technologies are larger, but they probably underestimate technological advances in non-nanotechnological innovations. Overall though, the potential advances brought by nanotechnology justify continued interest in the area.

So will nanotechnologies substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become popular? Time will tell.

Sources: UK's Defra news release, May 17, 2007; and various websites

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