Nanotech To Save The Planet – Again?


Bad news usually stimulates a whole plethora of stories about how nanotech will find the solution, from airline bombs to global warming. Today’s publication of the Stern Report, which puts the cost of climate change to the global economy at 3.68 trillion pounds ( or seven trillion dollars), will be no execption.

Ecomomic predictions are always hard to validate, as we find with the claims about nanotech, but this type of report with its headline numbers will always move the environment up the political agenda, but what can nanotechnology contribute?

It’s a subject I have been looking at for a long time, and every couple of years I am lucky enough to be invited to the European Energy Venture Fair at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue in Switzerland. The location is significant; just around the corner is IBMs Ruschlikon research centre where the scanning tunneling microscope, the first instrument to be able to ‘see’ atoms was invented, and without which we would have no nanotechnology. Swiss Re, one of the worlds largest reinsurance companies, were also one of the first to take a serious look at the potential risks of nanotechnologies.

A combined state of the art conference centre and hotel set in landscaped grounds with views over the Zurichsee is an ideal setting to attempt to sift through some of the hype that has surrounded the marriage of nanotechnologies and energy.

As the late Richard Smalley always used to say, the solution energy to the worlds energy problems lies in our better understanding of materials, whether we need to harness solar energy, drill deep boreholes to make use of geothermal energy, or simply improve energy efficiency. As nanotechnology is all about our better understanding of materials, I have to agree with Smalley, which was what led to me giving a keynote talk on The Impact of New Materials on Energy.

The conclusion was surprising to some. In the short term, we should not rely on huge breakthroughs blanketing the Sahara desert with solar cells or filling the North Sea with giant wind turbines, but simply accelerate the trend to using new materials to make existing products and processes more energy efficient. As any well briefed pundit should be able to tell you, composite materials (with or without nanoscale additives) have been quietly revolutionising the automotive and aviation industries for almost a decade.

The political knee jerk reaction will be to impose more green taxes, although any benefit from slashing carbon emissions in the UK to zero would be outweighed by increases in China and India within a matter of months. A better solution would be simply to increase reserach into materials that lead to better energy efficiency, from catalysts to aerogels, and make sure that these are cheap and widely available enough to improve matters on a global scale. Let’s hope a little of the any tax windfall will trickle through to the reserach community for positive and procative projects.

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