I was reading over at Nanotech-Now an article that provides a synopsis of some presentations given at the annual Nano-Enhanced Materials (HiPerNano) Conference put on by Cranfield University and the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network (NanoKTN) in the UK.
It appears as though the presentations were selected based on the criteria of the nanotechnologies being in the real world. So we get presentations from companies like Rolls Royce and Aston Martin. For Rolls Royce they are using nanoparticles as coatings on the turbines of their jet engines to prevent ice from forming on them, and Aston Martin is using nanocoatings as protection for the car's luxurious surfaces among a number of other applications.
As laudable as this work is it does strike one as a bit short of the mark when seen in the context of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. Our dependence on oil to power the internal combustion engines that propel automobiles can be seen, at least tangentially, as a reason we are facing this catastrophe in the Gulf.
But it seems that alternatives to this technology, which was first described in the 13th Century and was adopted for widespread use in the 19th Century, are far from being viable replacements and at this point may be even more harmful to the environment than the status quo.
As a recent white paper “Sustainable Technologies for the Next Decade” over at Cientifica points out we are reaching critical supply levels of the rare earth resources that current battery technology requires, like lanthanum.
As the Cientifica paper comments: “Each electric Prius motor requires 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of neodymium, and each battery uses 10 to 15 kg (22-33 lb) of lanthanum. That number is expected to nearly double under plans to boost the fuel economy.” And, of course, we have all but abandoned fuel cells in cars primarily because of infrastructure issues.
So here we are a decade into the 21st Century, seemingly forever chained to a 19th Century technology, which in more ways than just CO2 emissions is not doing us any favors and we get nanotechnology applied as a protective coating to luxury surfaces of automobiles.
If one is an optimist, you will conclude that sooner or later we will develop some alternative technology to the internal combustion engine that will not do us more harm than good. But even an optimist has to be asking where is the apparatus that will lead us in that direction?
Surely the restraints of short-term profits that often drive the research directions of corporate research nearly precludes these kinds of developments, and the government-backed research found at university or national labs can seem so far detached at times from any useful application that it is unclear how they will ever get us to where we want to be.
The stakes are too high to continue with this catch-as-catch-can approach to developing technologies, perhaps it’s time we take seriously how we can streamline our development of emerging technologies.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.