Current applications of nano-technology risk increasing climate emissions and fossil fuel use, reveals a Friends of the Earth report published today (16 November).

Nanotechnology in its current form will not significantly increase energy efficiency, or help tackle climate change, reveals a new report from Friends of the Earth in Europe, US and Australia. [1]

‘Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air’ exposes the true environmental and energy costs of nanotechnology, promoted as ‘green’ by the nanotech-industry.

The report details the complexity of nanotechnology and demonstrates that current uses fail to deliver benefits for global warming, resource depletion and pollution, but instead increase energy use and create environmental risks. In the energy sector globally nanotechnology applications are focused more on methods of finding, extracting and processing more oil and gas, rather than on delivering efficient solar films, capacitors and lighting for example. [2]

Duncan McLaren, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Nanotechnology has incredible theoretical potential to change the way we harness, use and store energy. But using it to help search for and extract more oil and gas in the teeth of climate change is a perversion of that potential.”

The report raises concerns that nano-techologies are excessively energy intensive. Although carbon nanotubes are being touted for use to produce lighter wind turbine blades, research in the USA concluded that single walled carbon nanotubes may be “one of the most energy intensive materials known to humankind”. [3]

McLaren continued: “Even where nano-products are being developed to support the renewable energy industry, the embodied energy costs could eliminate any climate change benefits. Without strong policy direction and tough regulation, requiring full life cycle assessment of energy and climate impacts, it’s likely that nanotechnology will increase emissions of greenhouse gases, rather than helping control them.”[4]

Most current and emerging nanotechnology products are not targeted at environmental problems, but at consumer goods markets like clothing, sports equipment and cosmetics. The research concludes that such applications consume additional energy in production for no environmental gain.

McLaren concluded: “As we see in other novel technology sectors such as pharmaceuticals and genetic modification, applications which could benefit human development in the global South are taking a poor second place to those which offer quick profits in the consumer markets of the rich North.

“At present nano-tech is offering faltering ‘nano steps forward’, but risking a giant leap backwards. Governments must grasp the challenge of establishing a fair and enabling framework of precautionary regulation.”

Nanotechnology has been the focus of considerable ‘greenwash’ and industry has promoted it as a solution to our environmental concerns.

Ian Illuminato, Friends of the Earth US and co-author of the report, said: “Nanotechnology is no quick techno-fix for our environmental problems. At best it can make a small positive contribution to energy and climate problems, but it has the potential to make things much worse.”

Georgia Miller, Friends of the Earth Australia and co-author of the report, said: “It is important the public understands that many nanotechnology applications come at a high environmental cost. At a time when we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, there is growing investment in nanotechnology to find and extract more oil and gas, instead of investment in proven solutions such as renewable technologies.”


For more information please contact:

Per Fischer, Press Office, Friends of the Earth Scotland
t: 0131 243 2719

Notes to Editors

[1] The report ‘Nanotechnology, climate and energy: over-heated promises and hot air?’ is available to download from here: www.foeeurope.org/publications/2010/nano_climate_energy_nov2010.pdf

[2] The report notes that 10 of the world’s biggest companies have joined forces to develop new nano-based methods for oil and gas field detection and mapping. Moreover, highlighting 78 nanotech start-ups focused on oil and gas in 2008, market research concluded that nanotech start-ups are prioritizing oil and gas applications over alternative uses of their materials. www.nanotech-now.com/news.cgi?story_id=28817

In Scotland the SDI Directory of Nanotechnology (2009) suggests Scotland’s nano-tech sector is more diverse at present: www.nano.org.uk/SDI/NanoScotlandv2.pdf

[3] The embodied energy requirements for carbon nanotubes is estimated to be in the region of 0.1 – 1 TeraJoule (TJ) per kilogram of product. One TJ is the equivalent of the chemical energy found in about 167 barrels of oil. A cradle to gate analysis found that for equal stiffness design, carbon nanofiber-reinforced polymer composites were 1.6 to 12 times more energy intensive than steel. Single walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNT) are synthesised in using arc discharge and carbon vaporization occur at thousands of degrees Celsius, or catalytic chemical vapor deposition at temperatures of 500 to 1000°C. Less than 10 percent by mass of the carbon vapourised may produce SWCNT. Purification may then increase the energy demands of manufacture by up to 50 percent.

[4] The report recommends effective regulation to: – Evaluate the energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions associated with nano product manufacture – Safeguard people and the environment from nanotoxicity risks, including those of antimicrobial products – Ensure producers’ responsibility for end of life product recovery and recycling – Require manufacturer take-back and recycling programs; support product design to maximise recyclability – Require labeling to support people’s right to know – Establish comprehensive and precautionary legislation to manage the risks associated with nanotechnology in general – Ban export of dangerous nanowaste and defunct nanoproducts, especially to the Global South

Friends of the Earth Scotland exists to help people in Scotland look after the planet for everyone’s future. We think globally and act locally in Scotland, delivering solutions to climate change by enabling and empowering people to take both individual and collective action. We offer help to people with the big things in life – helping to sustain a healthy society and environment. We believe that all of our children’s futures will be better because of what we do. www.foe-scotland.org.uk

Friends of the Earth is a network of grassroots groups in 77 countries fight to create a more healthy, just world. Our current campaigns focus on clean energy and solutions to global warming, protecting people from toxic and new, potentially harmful technologies, and promoting smarter, low-pollution transportation alternatives.