Nanotech Isn’t Green Enough – But Compared to What?

I’ll leave the professional report readers such as 2020Science to wade through the Friends of the Earth’s latest broadside against nanotechnology which claims that it “isn’t green enough.”

This brief report in “The Australian” neatly sums up the argument, which is that although nanotechnology has been spoken of as a solution to some aspects of climate change, it is is less green than other alternative approaches such as sitting still and waiting for the world to end, and therefore it shouldn’t be funded.

Some of the arguments are clearly rather silly and selective. Claiming for example that “the energy conversion efficiency of nano solar panels was 10 per cent less than conventional silicon panels” is rather unfair given the stage of the development of the technology and ignores the amount of R&D going into areas such as organic photovoltaics. Similarly claims that “processing may also involve the use toxic chemicals and solvents, and the release greenhouse gases such as methane” could be applied to almost every area of human activity, or indeed inactivity.

Technology always needs to be seen over time, and the fact that Stephenson’s Rocket wasn’t as fast as a galloping horse in its first trial probably led to similar calls for the technology to be abandoned.

Perhaps the most depressing thing is that in order to make the argument that nanotech isn’t green enough, Friends of the Earth has to waste its (and our) time shooting down some of the wilder claims about nanotechnologies, while ignoring much of the rational scientific work that going on.

What I’d love to hear from an environmental group is a rational argument about nanotechnology. How do we encourage applications that could limit climate change and protect the environment while monitoring and averting any unintended risks and consequences? Carping from the sidelines may create a few sound bites, but it won’t change government policy and nor will it stymie human creativity when it comes to applying technology.

To have a real impact, environmental groups need to make themselves part of the debate rather than sitting in the corner sulking with their backs to the everyone.

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