July 2006 Symposium on Nanotechnology and the Environment: Session 1: Life Cycle of Nanomaterials
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July 12, 10:30-11:30 AM
Dr. Stig Irving Olsen, Technical University of Denmark, Department of Manufacturing Engineering Management, Lyngby, Denmark
The concept of life cycle assessment (LCA) is built upon the functional unit, i.e., all impacts, etc., are related to a specific service or function in the society. In an LCA context, the assessment of emerging technologies like Nanotechnology is challenging due to a number of knowledge gaps. It may not be known exactly what the function is (or functional unit) or what the technology may substitute, and production may still be at an experimental level, raising questions about technology or choice of materials.
Nanotechnology apparently has great potentials in reducing energy requirement of products use stage, increasing energy production efficiency, reducing materials in the use stage, etc. Nanotechnological products are emerging on the market, but studies on the life cycle environmental impacts are still very limited. Nonetheless, several potential environmental aspects can be identified which can question the sustainability of nanotechnologies. For example, energy intensive manufacturing efforts, high requirement to materials, potential impacts due to release of nanomaterials in the use stage or end of life, and problems with recycling of materials are all potential environmentally problematic properties of nanotechnologies.
Due to the state of development of nanotechnologies prospective, LCA studies methodologies like "consequential LCA" may be useful because future changes are taken into account. However, it still does not suffice for emerging technologies. In a recent "Green Technology Foresight" project a methodology was developed based on five elements:
- Life-cycle thinking,
- Systems approach,
- A broad dialogue based understanding of the environment,
- Precaution as a principle and,
- Prevention as preferred strategy.
When assessing emerging technologies, three levels should be considered.
- First order effects are connected directly to production, use, and disposal.
- Second order are effects from interaction with other parts of the economy from more intelligent design and management of processes, products, services, product chains, etc., and the effect on the stocks of products. An example could be dematerialisation.
- Third order effects may be considered rebound effects, e.g., when efficiency gains stimulate new demands, which balances or overcompensates the savings.
Nanotechnologies should not be considered environmentally beneficial just because products are small. A life cycle perspective should be applied during design and technological development in order to reduce potential environmental impacts in the life cycle of the "nano-products."