Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Truthiness Of GREEN Nanotechnology

Since 42% of the public in a recent poll had no idea what ‘nanotech’ is, lets spend a moment explaining it. Nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, manipulating and manufacturing things on a scale of 1-100 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter; a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

Nanotechnology was first introduced as an idea in 1959 when conventional-sized robot arms were instructed to construct a replica of themselves one-tenth their original size. Then, using that new set of arms (and instructions) they were made to manufacture an even smaller set. Theoretically then, the demonstration suggested the process could be repeated until the molecular scale is reached. A nanorobot, therefore, is/was a theoretical device measured in nanometers that when fully realized works at the atomic, molecular and cellular level to perform tasks in both the medicine and industry.

Nanoprobe attaching to a red blood cell -- CGI 'vision' of nanotech at work


When Floyd Landis won the Tour de France last year it was a victory for nanotechnology. Landis road a bike that was enhanced with carbon nanotubes. As a result, the frame of his BMC Pro bike weighed less than a kilogram, just under 2.2 pounds.

It’s estimated that nanotech in some way, shape or form is already part of $30 billion dollars worth of consumer products this year.

Here is the Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory – as maintained by the Pew Trust-endowed Project On Emerging Nanotechnologies. Their website lists over 450 items.

Back in April the Project released a report, "Green Nanotechnology: It's Easier Than You Think," which outlined ways to harness nanotech's power. It explores the benefits of linking nanotech with green chemistry and engineering to minimize environmental impacts through resource-conserving and waste-eliminating improvements in processes and products.

The report focused on four areas:

Creating new nanotechnology-enabled products and processes that are environmentally benign - or "clean and green";

Managing nanomaterials and their production to minimize potential environmental, health, and safety risks;

Using nanotechnology to clean up toxic waste site and other legacy pollution problems;

Substituting green nanotechnology products for existing products that are less environmentally friendly.

For example, James Hutchison, a University of Oregon chemist, uses DNA molecules in a novel process that holds promise for building nanoscale patterns on silicon chips and other surfaces. The method saves materials and requires less water and solvent than the traditional printing techniques used in the resource-intensive electronics industry.

Other researchers are investigating nanoscale approaches to replace lead and other toxic materials in electronics manufacturing. Nanotech has opened promising new routes for making inexpensive solar cells and improving the performance and cost of fuel cells. And work at the nanoscale is leading toward tools for removing toxic materials and cleaning up hazardous waste sites.

And Engineers are trying to build a system to remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in an effort to reduce global warming. A research and development company called Global Research Technologies, LLC (GRT) and Klaus Lackner from Columbia University recently successfully demonstrated a device that captures carbon from the air.

Their air extraction device uses sorbents (absorbing compounds) to capture carbon dioxide molecules from free-flowing air and releases those molecules as a pure stream of carbon dioxide for sequestration. It met a wide range of performance standards in the GRT research facility.

"This is an exciting step toward making carbon capture and sequestration a viable technology," said Lackner. "We are trapping carbon dioxide about 1,000 times faster than a tree does," he said. "Once you have the CO2 attached to the sorbent, you have to pry it loose again, which is the costly part of the procedure."

Having dreamed the sci-fi dream of "true nanotech" back in the 90's -- "true nanotech" being nanotech that can "self-assemble," like the nanobots envisioned in 1959, building nanotools and nanofactories from a set of instructions -- the Weekly Green began its inquiry into Green Nanotechnology with hopes that "real" nanotech might be on the verge of creating not only "scrubbers" like Lackner’s device but perhaps free-floating nanoparticles, co2 eaters. That we might find that perhaps soon an egoogleplex of nano pacmen could simply be released into the air to bind with global warming gases and produce a harmless green rain of inert material.

Not so.

In fact, sadly, as we shall see in PT 2 – The Bad News About Green Nanotech, the recent bad news about the dangers of Nanotech at this point may outweigh the good.

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