What is sustainable nanotechnology?

This is the second installment on a 2-part series on sustainable nanotechnology. In part 1, I described my notion of  nanotechnology.

Research and development in nanotechnology is bringing us many possibilities for improving our lives. Nanotechnology in electronics allows us to have smaller, thinner, lighter computers. Charlie Marcus has a great TED talk about nanoelectronics and the next step, quantum computers. We could talk all day about possible applications of nanotechnology. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has a very large, albeit non-exhaustive list of applications of nanotechnology in everyday materials, energy applications, environmental remediation, health and medicine, etc.

But as with any emerging technology, the development of nano must be accompanied by environmental considerations. Afterall, we don’t want another story like asbestos in our future, if we can avoid it. Nanomaterials have novel and many not-so-well-known properties, some of which could negatively affect human health and the environment. Thus, before nanotechnology can be regulated, a lot of research is being performed to assess the potential environmental and health implications of nano. VTSuN, CEINT, and UC-CEIN, to mention a few, have been heavily researching this.

But sustainability is about more than discovering whether or not something is harmful. Leslie Paul Thiele said, in her book Sustainability, that sustainability is “one of the least meaningful and most overused words in the English language”. I kind of agree with her. And I think it’s mostly because it is used without a clear definition or context (aka green washing). Sustainability is a multi-faceted concept. It’s one of those words that only has true meaning when associated to another. Look it up in your dictionary. It will say something like this:

To sustain is to cause to continue or be prolonged for an extended period or without interruption.
It is to be able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

Economic sustainability, for example, is the concept of strategizing economical assets responsibly, so your economical model, whether it be a company or a country, can survive in the long term. Economic sustainability is a very interesting concept, which has been a source for a reasonable amount of discussion in the past decade. In Enough is Enough, the authors discuss the fallacy of economical development. Why, do you think it is possible for our economy to grow indefinitely? For continued economic growth, one needs continued growth is resources. Since there is a limited amount of resources available in this planet, until other habitable planets are discovered and settled by humans, continued economic growth is not possible. Rather than growth, a more reasonable hope is for economic sustainability. Economic sustainability is about cultivating economic opportunities that are feasible to be continued in the very long term.

This brings us to environmental sustainability, which refers to the conservation of ecological balance by avoiding the depletion of natural resources or the extinction of biological species. Environmental sustainability is intimately related to economical sustainability because our environmental resources are, at the end of the day, all of our resources. Sustainability is about thinking in the very long term and ensuring that future generations have access to the resources that we have today.

According to the United Nations World Summit of 2005, Sustainable Development has economical, environmental, and social aspects.

The three dimensions of sustainable development have been represented in many different ways: as pilars, as a Venn diagram, and as concentric circles, my preferred representation.
The three dimensions of sustainable development have been represented in many different ways: as pillars, as a Venn diagram, and as concentric circles, my preferred representation. Similarly, sustainability is also defined to be grounded on the “triple bottom line” of People, Planet, and Profit.

When addressing “sustainable nanotechnology”, we must address economic needs, human safety, and environmental conservation. Sustainable nanotechnology demands extra creativity and innovation in an already innovative field. How can we make materials safer to people? How can we make manufacturing less energy intensive? How can we minimize waste? These are a few good driving questions towards sustainable nanotechnology. Actually, these should be driving questions in whatever work you do, whether it is related to nanotechnology or not.

Based on all this, here is my definition of sustainable nanotechnology:

Sustainable nanotechnology is the development of science and technology within the 1 – 100 nanometer scale, with considerations to the long-term economic viability and a sensible use of natural resources, while minimizing negative effects to human health and the environment. Potential negative effects may be caused by engineered nanomaterials or by anthropogenic changes in the prevalence of naturally occurring nanomaterials.

This definition is logically open for discussion. The Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization is also working on coming up with a unified definition. Hopefully we will work together so that we can all use the same definition.

I’ll wrap up with some wise words from a 2006 IUCN meeting report:
“Environmentalists, governments, economic and political planners and business people use ‘sustainability’ or ‘sustainable development’ to express sometimes very diverse visions of how economy and environment should be managed. (…) The concept is holistic, attractive, elastic but imprecise. The idea of sustainable development may bring people together but it does not necessarily help them to agree goals. In implying everything sustainable development arguably ends up meaning nothing.”


About the Author: 

Nina Quadros is the Associate Director for VTSuN: Virginia Tech’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology and a postdoctoral associate of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) at Virginia Tech.

Update [2 Sep 2014] Nina Quadros has recently changed her name to Marina Vance

On twitter@marinavance

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