Nanotechnology can deliver solutions to U.S. economic, energy and geopolitical challenges while also helping the world meet climate targets and sustainability goals, according to a new report from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
“By creating a domestic source for materials production through methane pyrolysis, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and other nanomaterials can reduce dependencies on foreign markets for critical materials; replace energy-intensive materials that are hard to decarbonize such as cement, steel and aluminum; and minimize the impact on vulnerable communities where these minerals are currently sourced and processed,” wrote Rachel Meidl, fellow in energy and environment at the Baker Institute’s Center for Energy Studies.
Meidl says CNTs are critical for achieving energy independence, but the biggest advances in nanoscience and the societal benefits reaped by them are occurring elsewhere, detracting from the U.S.’s competitiveness and placing its economic prosperity and national security at risk.
“As an example, the manufacturing of solar nanomaterials has almost entirely shifted abroad,” she wrote. “Additionally, China dominates 80% of the refining and processing of the world’s battery materials, 77% of the world’s cell capacity and 60% of the world’s component manufacturing, competencies that are critical to renewable and low-carbon technologies that will purportedly bring us closer to sustainability and climate stability.”
Federal investments can enable future discoveries that expand the existing body of knowledge and ensure the U.S. remains at the forefront of nanotechnology, Meidl argues.
“Unleashing these abundant domestic energy resources will require investment in next-generation, nano-enabled energy technologies that will improve the resiliency and sustainability of the nation and fashion a future in which responsible development and deployment of nanotechnology provides maximum benefit to the environment and to human social and economic well-being,” she wrote.
CNTs and nanotechnology at large need a clear and consistent path to commercialization in order to responsibly serve society, according to Meidl. That path must be “guided by informed policies that take into account the connectivity between society, the environment and the economy, and underpinned by a comprehensive, interdisciplinary research strategy,” she wrote.
The current lack of standardized nomenclature, experimental procedures, analytical methods, protocols and material standards has created a large body of inconsistent, unreliable research, Meidl argues.
“The introduction of all new products and technologies will have risks and unexpected consequences, both beneficial and harmful,” she wrote. “Despite tremendous advancements in the field of nanotechnology and progress made in developing and implementing research-based environmental, health and safety protocols for addressing nano-safety issues, challenges remain in risk assessments and adequately investigating health and toxicity effects.
“Unless there is standardization in metrology, taxonomy, testing, risk assessment, reporting and communication across the CNT sphere, it will be difficult to even measure or report on sustainability in a meaningful way,” she continued.
Meidl wrote that more CNT research and funding is needed to address these issues and create “a world-class research portfolio, expedite commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled applications, support a dynamic and skilled workforce and ensure responsible development from lab to market.”
“As emerging technologies chart new opportunities and businesses attempt to navigate the regulatory abyss, governments, with the rapid rate of innovation, struggle to keep pace in developing policy pathways,” she wrote. “The preeminent issue is how to protect society and ensure fair markets while addressing the potential unintended consequences of disruption and still allowing innovation and businesses to prosper.”
Life cycle assessments of nanotechnology products are crucial to monitoring safety issues or other potential impacts along the entire chain — production, manufacturing, shipping, use and end-of-life — and helping the U.S. remain competitive globally, Meidl argues.
Recommendations for Realizing the Full Potential of Nanotechnology and Carbon Nanotubes in the Energy Transition
Rachel A. Meidl
Rachel A. Meidl
Baker Institute for Public Policy