Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On Green Nano

I wrote the following for a journal and they wanted more data??? I know it may not be consistent with ICON's view of Green Nano but this is my opinion and not theirs.


Danger levels in the USA are designated in a range colors from red to green. Red is very bad and green is not. A Green Party is nascent in the USA but an important political forum in some Western Europeans countries. Green Chemistry refers to a chemistry sub-discipline of sorts where advocates call for designing products and processes that reduces or eliminates hazardous substances from the beginning to end of a chemical product’s life cycle. There was a model program launched in 1991 by the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics with mixed results.

Now there seems to be an effort afoot in the USA to color code nano. Allegedly, the Green Nano Initiative (GNI) attempts to create a green foundation for the nanotechnology industry involving fewer reagents, less solvent, and less energy having a milder environmental impact than current technology (Ritter, 2006). The framework for this initiative would also include a clearer understanding to the life cycle implications associated with nanomaterials and nanoproducts. The initiative involves policy incentives to encourage a “green” nanotechnology industry which presumably would use energy efficiently and produce minimal waste. This might involve tweaking regulations that discourage substitution of new “nano” technologies for older ones. It also includes the encouragement of remediation, solar energy, and water treatment technologies. Finally, it involves reducing the environmental health and safety (EHS) footprint the industry will impose on workers and society. While there has been reporting that regulators and experts have launched the GNI, this seems to be mostly the work of Barbara Karn on detail from the U.S. EPA and a visiting scientist at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The GNI is also supported by the Woodrow Wilson Institute GreenNano series of workshops.

The following gives a thumbprint summary of the some of the “green”-ness issues associated with nanoscience. It has been organized in three categories: Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), general efficiencies, and remediation.

EHS – With databases both at the International Council on Nanotechnology’s (ICON) site and at Woodrow Wilson and two anticipated at the Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig and as part of the diffused NSEC: Center for Nanotechnology in Society’s Nano-Indicator Series, we have quite a bit of information. Adding both the work at NIOSH and the anticipated Current Practices report from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and ICON, we should have even more information. As long as the EPA and other groups continue to fund EHS research and hopefully at much higher levels when partnered with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) General Duty clause buttressed by litigation attorneys, we can expect serious consideration of EHS in nanoproduction facilities.

Research wise, one study (Robichaud, 2005) indicates that the EHS footprint of some nanoparticles is comparable to many marketed products such as wine, aspirin, automotive lead batteries, refined petroleum, and high density plastics. Very promising work by Andre Nel and his UCLA team (Nel, 2006) involved developing a new testing method to assess the safety and health risks of engineered nanomaterials. Nel may have developed the testing model at UCLA based on toxicity testing for occupational and air pollution nanoparticles. Nel is also establishing NanoSafety Laboratories Inc. (NSL) in association with California NanoScience Initiative (CNSI) at UCLA to help manufacturers assess the safety and risk profiles of engineered nanomaterials (“New testing method…, 2006).

EFFICIENCIES – Efficiencies exist on many levels. For example, energy applications range from efficient fuel cells to portable solar cells and work in this area is occurring on many university campuses and at startups and large established firms both here and abroad. Furthermore, new production techniques may reduce organic solvents and other toxic chemicals during synthesis. In addition, working on the nanoscale would seem to reduce waste of all sorts. Most importantly for the GNI, reducing the use of solvents during synthesis stand to drive down the cost of producing metal nanoparticles by eliminating the need to recover and dispose of these materials in a safe and environmental responsible manner (“Green method…, 2006). For example, for water soluble nanomaterials, organic solvents used for purification can be eliminated. There are other creative applications as well. For example, DuPont is working on a paint sealant for automotive components “reducing the environmental impact of producing cars by slashing the amount of energy and materials needed” (Gartner, 2006).

REMEDIATION – The major player in this initiative at this time may be remediation. High surface area to volume rations, high surface energies, a large fraction of stepped surface (Wang and Zhang, 1997), and unique structures, such as zero valency (Masciangioli and Zhang, 2003), can make nano-sized metals extremely chemically reactive.

Interface Sciences Corporation of Monterey, CA, uses nanomaterials for oil remediation and recovery (“In the wake…, 2005), the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory uses nano-sized silver hollandite to oxidize nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons potentially impacts the catalytic converter industry (Inexpensive oxidation…, 2005), and many researcher are working with nanoscale zero-valent iron to remediate PCB-contaminated soils and sediments (Mikszewski, 2004).

Novation Environmental Technologies “holds a license which uses nanofiltration to help purify water” (Choi, 2005a). EMembrane is “developing nanoscale polymer brushes coated with molecules to capture and remove poisonous metal proteins, and germs.” KX Industries has developed antibacterial and antiviral water-filtering membranes that can turn raw sewage into clean water on the other end (Choi, 2005b). Aguavia is using nanopore membranes in a water-filtration system. “A six inch cube of membrane could purify 100,000 gallons of water a day” (Bailey, 2004). Argonide’s NanoCeram Superfilter uses nanofibers, which has multiple applications, including purifying water from biological agents and for industrial processing (“US-Russian…, 2005).

Other companies like Nano-Proprietary and its subsidiary Applied Nanotech is working on a thin film coating on a flexible fiberglass cloth that decomposes pollutants at the molecular level (“Nano-Proprietary, Inc. to receive…, 2006). China plans on using a nanoized titanic oxide based compound coating material as a permanent air purifier on the exterior walls of buildings in Shanghai (”Paint to help…, 2004). Still others are developing sensors to detect hazardous materials in aquatic environments (“Top Green nanotechnology…, 2006).

One of the more entertaining claims was made by Nano Green Sciences, a small Florida company. They produced a colloidal micelle that can be used as a replacement pesticide. It has demonstrated some effectiveness against soft-bodied insects, hydrocarbons, and many bacterial borne diseases. It may have applications across the agriculture, food processing, animal care, bioremediation, and cleaning industries (“Clean surfaces…, 2005).

STRATEGY – The GNI, if it is an initiative, transfers the positive valence of “green”-ness to the burgeoning field of nanoscience and places critics in the unfortunate position where not only are they compelled to argue against nanoscience but also against the symbolic connotation of “green”-ness. I admit I am associated with ICON and helping them with their communication. In addition, I am a tenured and secure full professor and would complain as loudly had ICON introduced the GNI.

There’s a phenomena going on in the nanoworld and it involves capturing as much rhetorical space as possible. There are quite a few participants in this race. We have a few NGOs (some much more reasonable than others). They include the ETC Group (least reasonable), Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Environmental Defense (very reasonable). We have stakeholder organizations like the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON). Finally, we have a public interest group known as the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Emerging Technologies Project (WWC-P) supported in part by the Pew Charitable Trust.

Rhetorical space is limited because there are limits to public interest and attention. Rhetorical space is further reduced as the subject becomes more discrete and this supports a continuum of sorts anchored by ACC at one end and the WWC-P on the other. ACC represents the best interests of its membership and responds as a public and governmental relations branch of the chemical industry and WWC-P has extensive resources, geographical centrality, and facility support beholding to no one but their benefactors with limited restrictions on the tone of their rhetoric. ICON rests in the middle. It has a broader range of stakeholders, a limited mandate, and must represent a more diverse set of interests hence its rhetoric is much more tempered.

As a communications professional and cynic, it seems the GNI may be nothing more than a marketing ploy (I really hope I am wrong about all this since environmental friendly technology with a minimal EHS footprint would be great.) The GNI could even be a smoke screen to direct attention away from the EPA regulatory failures. This conclusion is drawn from the apparent overreach of the concept. Once you consider what might constitute Green Nano, at least as defined by its proponents, it is difficult to discern what might not be Green Nano.

If we can move beyond its symbolic significance and its perception management functions, there are important marketing features to the term. Most importantly for the following, the GNI moves nanoscience into a new paradigmatic framework.

By marketing another paradigm for nanoscience, it rejects the revolutionary rhetoric that has pitted hyperbolic claims about nanoscience against EHS concerns. As these concerns mount, the response that nanoscience is merely an evolutionary step in chemistry rang false against the revolutionary claims made about its overall effect on society.

By marketing another paradigm for nanoscience, it rejects the development and economic growth and security metaphor promoted by government promoters. Premised on the politics of fear both in terms of economic security and direct references to the GMO debacle in Western Europe, it is used to justify an ongoing and major investment by the USA federal government in nanoscience.

And by marketing another paradigm for nanoscience, GNI extends an argument entertained by J. Clarence Davies in an earlier publication calling for a sustainable model of nanoscientific development. According to Karn, the GreenNano series will look at government policies that offer incentives for developing smart engineering and business practices. Davies dedicated three pages in his treatise on regulating nanoscience to incentive for environmentally beneficial technology. In it, he advocated tax breaks, preferential acquisition programs (favoring greener vendors), and regulatory incentives (like accelerated review) though he admits his package of suggestions for environmentally beneficial nanotechnology might not make it out of the current sitting US Congress.

Finally, we must try to evaluate the power of the new claim of Green Nano against the intrinsic implications this may have on environmental ethics. One of the consequences of misclaiming that something is green is the sating and quelling of concern and protest. For example, if the public feels everything is recyclable they may be less willing to restrict consumption in order to reduce refuse. If they feel all nano might be green, they may be less vigilant to some more problematic applications.

This new concept involves recasting nanoscience. GNI or Green Nanoscience would involve the production and use of nanomaterials minimalizing their EHS footprint, a reduction in wasteful production on a macro-scale with more precision on a nano-scale, and remediation efforts using nanoparticles. It is too bad that when the concept of applied nanoscience, read as nanotechnology, was first introduced it was not introduced more greenly. It might have changed the tone of the debate and the direction of policy initiatives both in the USA and abroad.

This work has been made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation, NSF 01-157, NIRT (Nanotechnology Interdisciplinary Research Team): PHILOSOPHICAL AND SOCIAL DIMENSIONS OF NANOSCALE RESEARCH, From Laboratory to Society: Developing and Informed Approach to Nanoscale Science and Technology and NSF 04-043, NSEC: Revised Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, Center for Nanotechnology in Society. All opinions expressed within are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of South Carolina or the National Science Foundation or the International Council on Nanotechnology.


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