I have long expressed my skepticism about the claims that nanotechnology would enable alternative energy solutions to compete with fossil fuels.
Now I have a companion in my challenge that I really should have expected, but still strikes me as somewhat ironic. Friends of the Earth has just released a new report (pdf) that not only argues that nanotechnology has not really delivered on its claims to be able to bring cheap solar, hydrogen and wind power to us, but also points out that the energy used in creating the nanomaterials that would enable these breakthroughs results in a net energy loss, and, of course, nanomaterials will kill us.
On balance, I have not agreed with the Friends of Earth (FoE) whether it be their tactics, their science or their politics. However, this is not to say they don’t make valid points that certainly deserve deeper investigation.
But they always end up becoming such vigorous advocates for their ultimate line of argument (big corporations and technological development is our enemy, or more accurately, the earth’s enemy) that they inevitably step over the line.
Andrew Maynard over at his 2020 Science blog takes a cursory look at the report with the tacit promise that he may come back to us with a more thorough reading of it later. But even in his quick reading of it he noticed the omission of “heterogeneous catalysts in vehicle exhausts” and “nanomaterials to develop more efficient power lines”.
From my reading of the executive summary, the FoE seems quite upset that nanomaterials are being used to improve the extraction of oil and gas. I suppose they see that as some kind of betrayal of the promise of nanotechnology, at least for use in promoting alternative energy.
The issue to me seems to be that the world is going to continue to extract oil, if nanomaterials can help in doing it more cheaply, efficiently and with the use of fewer resources, I would think that would be a good thing. But again, the FoE is so fervent in their ideologies that reducing the environmental impact of an industrial process is anathema because it perpetuates the use of the industrial process. Sigh.
I have wondered why the FoE exerts so much effort in combating the use of nanotechnologies when there are far more established and dangerous materials threatening them from afar. And I think I have an idea. Nanotechnology—or for that matter any emerging technology— that offers a solution to the world’s ills stands as an obstacle to their wish that we all live in mud huts and wear clothes from textiles we wove ourselves from sheep and cotton we raised ourselves, and on and on and on.
The irony of this is that this perspective can only come from highly affluent people who were raised and continue to live in a society built upon technological development that gives them clean drinking water, sanitary living conditions, and readily available calories for both food and energy. Meanwhile the billions who eat, sleep and live in what are virtually open sewers and who might like to have a cheap way of getting clean drinking water or someway to have electricity in their homes seem to be lost in the FoE’s self righteousness.
I welcome the FoE’s challenge to the real benefit of nanotechnology in alternative energy. However, my aim is to see that nanotechnology either actually rise up to its claims or admit that it cannot, not as the FoE seems to be doing wishing that it would all just go away.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.