Nanotechnology: Doing more with less (Part 1)

Rising global consumption is widely acknowledged by major government and academic institutions to pose a severe threat to the security of the world's natural resources and environment. Is human civilization on a collision course with collapse, driven by overconsumption, resource depletion and irreversible damage to the ecosystem or are production technologies changing and improving so rapidly that resource productivity and sustainability will increase sufficiently to avoid such a disaster?

In this article, I'm going to explore some themes in relation to stewardship of resources and the environment. In particular, whether there is a need for government to step-in to address these issues, whether this kind of policy-making can be effective, and whether business can successfully lead the change through self-governance without artificial incentives. I believe the latter proposition can work and indeed needs to be the main driving force on the road to sustainability. In this piece I will argue how this shift is already taking hold, propelled by technological innovation including the transformative role of nanotechnology.

Let's examine the often held belief that businesses have no incentive to adopt environmental programs or any "green" agenda because their responsibility is to shareholders and shareholders alone. Embracing sustainability, it is claimed, is simply too harmful to the bottom line. I'm not convinced this is strictly true. There can be a compelling profit proposition in the new trend of "frugal innovation" and eco-friendly business strategies. DuPont and GE are good examples of companies that have achieved massive cost cutting through plans to dramatically reduce energy intensities. I would defy any Financial Officer not to get excited at the prospect of halving energy costs.

It is no secret though that in general the free market does not always allocate capital in the most efficient way and can lead to market failure in a number of forms. This of course includes economic side effects where prices do not cover the indirect costs of those activities to society. The most significant negative externalities of this kind generated by the market exchange economy today relate to environmental consequences such as pollution, resource scarcity, and climate change.

In particular, this issue is often brought into focus on the use of fossil fuels and our over-reliance on them, as they currently provide around 90% of global energy use despite belonging to our list of finite resources. Take oil and gas for instance, which by recent estimates have only 50 years supply remaining of proven reserves [1]. Even with enhanced oil recovery techniques that have improved the yield of these wells, extracting hydrocarbons is becoming increasingly costly as the need to explore "unconventional" oil deposits raises the energy inputs required per barrel produced. Eventually the law of diminishing returns sets in and we know that as a result demand growth is already outpacing supply growth [2]. As marginal returns start to dwindle against high fixed costs associated with the vast infrastructure of the oil and gas industry, then prices should skyrocket. Except they haven't, at least not yet anyway. Whether we are approaching peak oil from a supply direction is one thing, but the burgeoning environmental effort and rate of technological change behind alternative energy sources and energy-saving from industry may in the future start to push peak oil from a demand perspective, as oil simply starts to become uncompetitive.

The advent of new paradigms and discoveries make it possible to circumvent the law of diminishing returns and its ill-effects on productivity, enabling societies to continue to flourish. Buckminster Fuller coined the term "ephemeralization" to describe this process. This notion was popularised by the example that 175,000 tons of transatlantic copper cables were once used to transmit signals between America and Europe, where later a single quarter-ton communications satellite could do the job better, faster, clearer, with more bandwidth and at a fraction of the energy. The fact that in the long run it is cheaper to find ways to use less fuel than to buy more is one such example that is a catalyst for ephemeralization in energy-saving technology and design efficiency.

You can see this process in action as the world economy today uses around 30% fewer resources to produce one Dollar of GDP than 30 years ago; In fact, in the USA, over the same time the primary energy units used to produce one Dollar of GDP has actually fallen by 50% [3]. Overall however, the global consumption of resources is still increasing [4]

At this point in history we are witnessing the emergence of an incredible array of disruptive technologies, many of which as a result of the digital revolution. Internet technologies that are efficient, connected and distributed such as Bitcoin - a decentralized banking system with a distributed ledger that removes the need for a third party to verify transactions, or telehealth and telemedicine approaches from companies like Nanobiosym with its "Gene-Radar" diagnostic kits that can detect diseases and pathogens within an hour but in completely remote locations - a decentralized and distributed healthcare solution, or 3D printing which offers the radical promise of distributed manufacturing and lower cost of parts for small unit volumes. These tools all offer the potential to massively overhaul existing industries or at least large proportions of those industries, by greatly improving systems efficiency, lowering costs and democratizing what have been traditionally high barrier to entry fields which in turn empowers the consumer. These above technologies are certainly far less reliant on large infrastructure which means less energy used for transportation, buildings, industrial processes and electricity. Smart grids and the internet of things will take whatever else is left (food production, utilities, etc.) and lead to much the same effect - interconnecting devices, people, communities to create availability, efficiency and cheaper products and services.

The internet is also making business more accountable to the public under the lens of social media as companies are scrutinized in real-time against the backdrop of current societal trends where positive and negative sentiment is instantly formed around their activities and announcements. Consumers motivated on these issues will vote with their wallets.
It is easy to overlook many of early technologies as novelties, until their impact is realised, at which point they swiftly become taken for granted. But as powerful as internet technologies are becoming, surely they alone are not sufficient to address the problem at hand. Overall energy gains are debatable as the digital revolution will no doubt continue to require an ongoing expanse of power-hungry server farms. Like most radical technological progress, the goal of long-term sustainability will need several complimentary innovations to enable this transformation. There are thankfully far more direct relationships that can be drawn between efficiency and the resource economy when we move closer to source.

If we look at the central challenge of increasing resource productivity, broadly speaking there are two main factors to consider. The first is resource depletion - in particular the rate of use of resources by society vs the replenishment of those resources. Humankind currently extracts and uses around 50% more natural resources than from 30 years ago, which equates to roughly 60 billion tonnes of raw materials a year [4]. The way to tackle this escalating demand must lie in renewables. The resource availability of materials is not as pressing as with energy since many materials can be recycled whereas fossil fuels cannot and are increasingly difficult to continue extracting and also carry the problem of greenhouse gas emissions in their end-use. Cheap, reliable, clean energy must be addressed first to comfortably maintain human activity on the planet. Fortunately the cost of renewable sources are coming down and the EU reported last year that onshore wind power is now cheaper than coal, gas and nuclear when factoring external costs of air quality, human toxicity and climate change [5].


The second factor is waste, either from existing forms of capital (food, water, materials, energy, tools, buildings etc.) converted to waste in the production of new capital or from those same types of capital stocks converted to waste outside of production. In the US, of all the existing capital stocks processed each day, only 1% is actually converted into new capital that is still a usable product 6 months after sale. The global amount of waste generated every year from these processes is a whopping 500bn tons [6].

Where can increased efficiency gains come from to ensure lower waste and lower consumption of non-renewable global energy resources? To achieve these ends through the process of ephemeralization, there is no other more powerful and far reaching tool than nanotechnology. The science of the very small, that of controlling matter and processes at the nanoscale, entails the use of very small amounts of matter and very small amounts of energy. Using materials with atomic precision is practiced by nature every day - and nature optimises biological systems not to be too wasteful. The applications of nanotechnology are universal. It affects material science, biology, electronics, everything, and the implications for using matter and energy with the same scale of efficiency as nature - yet with purpose and design - is truly profound.

One of the features of nanoscale systems in nature is self-assembly, a process capable of manufacturing some of the most complex objects and organisms including the most complex thing in the universe, the human brain. The scalability of self-assembly shows it is possible to create on a large scale incredibly complex macroscopic systems from a starting block of disordered molecular components. If you compare this with conventional manufacturing techniques, these inevitably hit a productivity barrier of diminishing marginal returns, whereas self-assembly does not. The manufacture of microprocessors for example requires exponentially more expensive capital investment to increase the transistor count on a chip, with semiconductor fabrication plants now running into billions of dollars to build. With nano self-assembly instead of diminishing returns you get accelerating returns. In a nanofactory each new nano-scale component you are able to build in your production line can be used to build the next nanofactory, better, faster, cheaper, with less energy. This represents a truly remarkable manufacturing revolution that could be only decades away.

What's happening right now in material science is equally exciting. As mentioned, waste is a major problem and waste of finite resources even more so. Light-weighting of buildings and transport offers a tangible route to addressing a significant part of the problem. It cannot be overstated how inefficient most passenger and cargo vehicles are. Three quarters of the energy needed to move a car is caused by its weight and a lot of that energy is wasted, with only 13% reaching the wheels and about 0.3% of the fuel being used to actually move the driver [7]. Even the biggest dumper trucks can only carry the amount of mineral ore equal to their own weight. Similarly for buildings, more than 90% of the load of high rise buildings is their own weight and about 70-80% for bridges [8]. Advanced composites based on fibre reinforced polymers and cementitious materials with the addition of carbon nanotubes or graphene can find savings in the amount of material used in the fabrication of transports and buildings, providing also lower energy inputs and higher resource productivity in their operation and use. These composite technologies are transitioning from novelty applications in sporting goods to mainstream commercial and industrial end-use.

Nanocarbons also have a role to play in the other major waste of energy from electricity generation, transmission, storage and conversion. The efficiency of a gas power plant for example is about 33%, the overhead power lines retains around 90% and an incandescent bulb converts electricity into light at 5%, leaving about 1.5% overall efficiency. Graphene and carbon nanotubes have the extraordinary properties of "ballistic transport" (conduction without loss) which allows electrons to travel through these materials for long distances without scattering, whereas electrons in copper and aluminium wires for instance will encounter increasing amounts of impurities that cause them to scatter, creating resistance and energy loss through heat. Building electrical cables with metallic CNTs would improve energy efficiency of transmission lines as their conductance does not depend on their length but also their use in integrated circuits would address the issue of the energy consumption of computing devices from the digital revolution. The lowest hanging fruit for savings from my example is within the circuitry of the lightbulb, now getting a revamp with the advent of graphene LEDs soon hitting the high street that promise more efficient lighting.

Reducing energy input costs in processes means more abundant resources. This is true of graphene's emerging use in desalination membranes for generating usable water at a fraction of the current cost, or lightweight nanocomposites used in constructing wind turbine blades and so on.

The big question is whether change is being made rapidly enough to mitigate risk of conflict over limited resource supply and damage to the ecosystem, or whether there needs to be stern policy implementation by government to push these technological changes forward. Do these policies even work or do they in fact stifle innovation? Without these instruments are companies sufficiently incentivised to roll-out more efficient products if it means consumers buying less?

What also happens to the economy and society supposing we did reach a state of genuine abundance from this tidal wave of technology where capital goods might become so inexpensive to produce as to approach zero marginal cost? It may seem far fetched but this is already happening to some extent in the world of publishing and online content.

The second part of this article will therefore conclude by looking at whether government should intervene to promote sustainability, what ways it can achieve this and what is the impact of ephemeralization as consumers turn to prosumers.

References:

[1] http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/megatrends/climate-change-and-resource-scarcity-dennis-nally.jhtml
[2] http://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/about-bp/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html
[3] Amory Lovins: A 40-year plan for energy . Filmed March 2012 at TEDSalon NY2012
[4] "Overconsumption? Our use of the world´s natural resources" Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI), Austria and GLOBAL 2000 (Friends of the Earth Austria)
[5] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/13/wind-power-is-cheapest-energy-unpublished-eu-analysis-finds
[6]http://www.natcapsolutions.org/events/2013/MAR13_CA_UCBerkeley_DornfieldLecture_HLovins.pdf
[7]Natural Capitalism: The next industrial revolution with Amory Lovins. Series UC Berkley Graduate Council Lectures 12/2008, Public Affairs, Show ID:15123
[8] Introduction to the Carbon Age. Presentation of OCSiAl by Yuri Koropachinskiy and Michail Predtechenskiy at the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining in London, 2014 May 12.