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May 25, 2007
Nanotechnology: The Smallest Green Revolution?
    by Anne Moore Odell

A new report from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies touts "green" nanotechnology, and calls for Federal oversight.


As the scientific field of nanotechnology develops, there is a great opportunity for the field to be "green" from the get go declares the report "Green nanotechnology: Itís Easier than you Think." Although much of the role nanotechnologies could play in mopping up current environmental messes and preventing future ones is still hypothetical, there are already many products available using nanotechnologies that could be considered "green." Furthermore, the report calls on the federal government to create policies and oversight on nanotechnology. Critics of "green" applications of nanotechnology agree that federal oversight is necessary while defenders and critics of green nano-products strongly disagree on how money should spent and invested on these microscopic creations.

The report written by Karen Schmidt for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies summarizes a symposium and workshops held by the American Chemical Society in 2006. The Project of Emerging Nanotechnologies, started in 2005, is a joint venture between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It works with businesses, government and others to develop nanotechnologies while minimizing its risks.

Nanotechnology is the building and manufacturing objects between 1 and 100 nanometers, basically things the size of molecules. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Many uses for nanotechnologies have been projected from medical treatments to energy sources to growing food.

Helping the environment is another area nanotechnologies could have many uses. "By making the most of nanomaterials and their unusual properties and by using advanced tools for manipulating matter at the nanoscale, researchers expect to gain greater performance and new capabilities in green technologies. Those advances should improve our ability to clean up air, water and soil, as well as to generate energy efficiently, reduce waste and recover resources," the report concludes.

Nanotechnology coupled with the principles and practices of green chemistry has the ability to change the world and advance the environmental movement, according to the report. David Rejeski, Director for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies wrote the reportís preface, which states that green technology involves three goals to risk mitigation. These goals have environmental benefits among other far reaching benefits.

The three goals are "(a) advancing the development of clean technologies that use nanotechnologies (b) minimizing potential environmental and human health risks associated with the manufacture and use of nanotechnology products and (c) encouraging replacement of existing products with new nano products that are more environmentally friendly throughout their life cycles."

One example of a nano-based approach already being used is one that remediate polluted groundwater. "One system uses iron nanoparticles in the 70 nanometer range to clean up pollutants like carbon tetrachloride in contaminated groundwater," Rejeski told Socialfunds.com. "These look very promising, though issues have been raised concerning the impacts of the nanoparticles on the ecosystem once they are released."

However, the Friends of the Earth (FoE), a global non-profit that works protecting the environment, explains in Nanotechnology 101, found on their website, that nano-objects can act differently from other objects and "have unique and unpredictable human health and environmental risks. For example, nanoparticlesí exceptionally large relative surface area creates increased surface reactivity and enhanced intrinsic toxicity. " Because of their size, these nanoparticles can easily pass through biological membranes. What these nanoparticles do to the human body is still being studied.

"The role of nanotechnology in helping clean up the damage already done to the environment is currently limited," Ian Illuminato, Health and Environment Campaigner, Friends of the Earth, responded to Socialfunds.com. "While nanotechnology might someday provide useful tools for environmental stewardship, nano is currently overshadowed by irresponsible development,"

"Nanotechnology is currently only a band-aid to the many issues facing our world; we need deeper more sustainable solutions that we can truly count on. Avoiding the band-aid of nanotechnology to approach a deeper solution will take a lot of courage and work, but itís the only REAL solution to fighting our toxic society and the many issues we are faced by," Illuminato added.

Barbara Karn from the EPA was contacted by Socialfunds.com and was not permitted to give on record commentary from the EPA. Karn wrote the foreword to the report as a visiting environmental scientist for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

The report concludes with a list of Green Nano Policy Recommendations that include recommendations for the Federal government including investing more heavily in green nanotechnology research. The report also urges the government to spend more on the research on societal impacts of nanotechnology.

Rejeski further explained, "The federal government has yet to provide the Congress with a strategic research plan with clear priorities and associated funding for EH&S risks associated with nanotech. Agencies with key regulatory roles vis-ŗ-vis nanotech, like FDA and EPA, are starved of research funds and yet will have to make regulatory and oversight decisions in the near future. Industry benefits if these are based on sound science."

There are also perception risks that the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies would like the government to address. The project has conducted multiple surveys that show that 70-80% of adults in the U.S. have heard "nothing" or "very little" about nanotechnology.

"EPA needs to launch their voluntary program for nanotechnology immediately and begin work on a clear regulatory approach. There is significant uncertainty for industry in terms of if, when, and how the U.S. government will regulate nanotechnology," Rejeski said.

FoE calls on the EPA and other government agencies to place an immediate moratorium on the commercial release of all nanotechnological materials and products until such time as FoEís eight demands are met including that all nanomaterials are subjected to assessment prior to release and nanomaterials are assessed as new substances.

"Instead of investing billions of dollars on nanotechnology, our government should focus on deeper solutions to the problems we are facing in society, such as providing FDA with enough resources to regulate the over 10,500 ingredients in personal care products of which many are known carcinogens. Or why not invest in organic agriculture and safer foods?" asked Illuminato.

Socially responsible investors need to carefully investigate companies that are investing in researching nanotechnology. "Nanotech needs to get on the screen of the SRI investment community. They could play a key role in moving the technology in a more socially sustainable and economically viable path." Rejeski said.

However, 180 degrees away from Rejeskiís position, Illuminato stated, "Socially responsible investors should know that nanotechnology is currently a bunch of hype and just another way for corporate America to hold a leash on the public while gambling with human and environmental well being. Current products that employ Nanotechnology are potentially very risky for consumers and the environment. "

"Investors should also be aware that many financial forecasts for nanotechnology are very misleading. While forecast calculate the nano industry being worth in the Trillions of dollars in coming years, investors should be well aware that this calculation is based on the total value of a nano enhanced product. You might have a pharmaceutical worth $100, however, the nano component could only be worth 10 cents," Illuminato added.

Even Rejeski said that there may be long-tail liabilities associated with nanotechnologies: "We know almost nothing about chronic, long-term effects of nanotechnologies. Industry is not funding this type of research and government is not funding enough. In the meantime, look for companies that have robust environmental management systems in place. It is critical that someone in firms is responsible for environmental and worker safety issues."

"Donít assume that early stage investors have done any due diligence on startup firms in terms of their abilities to identify and address risk issues associated with nano. Obviously, look for firms that are developing green approaches to the production of nanomaterials and/or green products. Why buy risks and liabilities?" Rejeski added.

"Green nanotechnology: Itís Easier than you Think" never makes clear who exactly is the "you" who thinks. It uses the metaphor of a "marriage" between green chemistry and nanotechnology that could have far-reacting and positive consequences for the environmental movement. However, it seems more like a fantasy that green scientists are having for nanotechnology. Right now, there is nothing to keep nanotechnology from eloping with big businesses who have no consideration for the environment or the long-term consequences of nanotechnology.

 

 
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