5 ways nanotechnology can tackle climate change

Joost Reek
Professor, Van\'t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences.
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This post is part of a series examining the connections between nanotechnology and the top 10 trends facing the world, as described in the Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015. All authors are members of the Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology.

In an article for the World Economic Forum, Lewis Gilbert, CEO of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, concluded that CO2 levels in the atmosphere, as quantified by the Keeling Curve of the Maona Loa observatorium data, are continuing to rise. None of our political and public discussions, protocols and negotiations, and general public awareness have had any effect on this curve.

Gilbert argued that political control of CO2 emissions is not feasible, as it is against human nature. It seems to be a driver of human evolution, and as such it is obviously imprinted in our very DNA: humankind and our wealth are intended to grow, against all opposing forces.

If this hypothesis is valid, regulatory operations are meaningless, as they will be circumvented. The only way out is to change the whole system so that growth is decoupled from CO2 generation. Disruptive technologies are one way of achieving this, and system thinking, system science and nanosciences have an important role to play.

As scientists, we believe there is reason to be hopeful because CO2-neutral and CO2-negative technologies could bring huge economic benefits. But for that to happen, there must also be the right social and political support for such innovations. Here are five ways we can start doing that:

1. Stop subsidizing technologies like biogas, bioethanol or biodiesel

Their impact is debatable and they are still CO2-driven growth operations. Such support was meant to be positive, but instead leaves the non-subsidized innovations to compete with other technologies that were only ever competitive because of the huge support they received.

2. Invest in disruptive technologies

Disruptive technologies are not currently receiving the support they need. We need an alternative culture of investment and entrepreneurship driving these disruptive changes. Those countries that don’t do well under the current system, which is dominated by CO2-based industries and technologies, should see these disruptions as a big opportunity. This is mostly a question of social attitudes about accepting risks in our lives. Governments should also be investing in research centres searching for new disruptive technologies. In many European countries, the opposite is currently true: research topics are increasingly dictated by industry, and policy-makers prefer scientists to “think within the box”.

3. Prioritise cheap energy storage

The European example, with widespread penetration of sustainable energy sources (wind, water and solar), points to the need for cheap energy storage, preferably at least 10 times cheaper than current technologies in the medium term (€200/kWh stored). Cheap technology that allows reversible storage of electrical energy in the form of chemical bonds (fuels) could be the disruptive technology we’re looking for. Nanotechnology can unblock bottlenecks in the direct conversion of solar energy to fuel, and power to gas and fuel cells.

4. Promote biomass-based technologies

Biomass-based technologies that take the waste products of agriculture and turn them into non-combustible materials (e.g. pavements and buildings) are by definition CO2 negative and have the potential to cure the wider CO2 problem (planet Earth is binding six times more carbon in plants than the current carbon footprint of whole humankind; waste streams alone can address CO2 release).

Such techniques might even lower atmospheric CO2. Using the enormous amounts of carbon materials created in this way for soil improvement could help fertilize anthropogenic badlands. This would be an elegant way of tackling CO2 while aiding nutrition and economic growth. If CO2 emissions are not quickly reduced to the required level, then these CO2-negative technologies may be needed to keep global warming within the 2°C limit.

5. Develop oxy-fuels

Oxygen from cheap artificial photosynthesis based on nanoscience (or cheap water electrolysis from solar electricity) could support “oxy-fuel” technology. The oxygen created in this way does not need much purification and could be combined with solar hydrogen to form the base of CO2-neutral liquid transportation fuels. This will depend on the application of sophisticated chemistry and the use of nanocatalysis. But it is a valid approach to transforming low-value carbon sources into high-value chemical and fuels, while using carbon as a (CO2-neutral) carrier and the energy of the sun. Such super-plants could in principle be built now, with the only barrier being that current stakeholders want to sell a different, older technology.

We believe that climate control is not a problem of technology, but a problem of system thinking and social and private values. If we can decouple economic growth from CO2 production, and develop new processes that generate value by reducing CO2, solutions to climate issues will naturally follow.

Authors: Markus Antonietti is Director of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology; Joost Reek is Professor of Homogeneous, Supramolecular and Bio-Inspired Catalysis at the University of Amsterdam, and director of van ‘t Hoff institute for molecular sciences. Both are members of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Nanotechnology. The authors kindly acknowledge fruitful discussions with prof B. van der Zwaan from ECN/UvA.

Image: The sun rises over Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier near the city of El Calafate, in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, December 16, 2009. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

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