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Nanotechnology from an Industrial Ecology Perspective

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

There has been much discussion in recent times of the possible impacts on health and the environment, associated with the emerging field of nanotechnology, for example: 

Nanotechnology Not That Green

Nanotechnology’s Public Health Hazard

Nano-pollution: the next scare story?

The following research paper provides a substance-flow analysis (SFA) of carbon nano-tubes from an industrial ecology perspective

Lekas, D. 2005. Analysis of Nanotechnology from an Industrial Ecology Perspective Part II: Substance Flow Analysis of Carbon Nanotubes. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. November 2005; 22 pp.

Link to full paper —> http://www.nanotechproject.org/file_…ed%20part2.pdf

1. Introduction

The “next plastic,” the future for electronics, a new energy storage material. Such descriptors have been given to the nanomaterial carbon nanotubes. These carbon atom cylinders with diameters under 100 nanometers are quickly becoming the focus of significant research and production around the world. Many people estimate that we will see high penetration of carbon nanotubes into everyday products in the near future. At the same time, however, many have expressed concern over the potential health risks from exposure to nanotubes. In order to better understand the scope of nanotube production, use, and destiny, particularly in terms of their impacts in the environment and on human health, this paper presents findings from an investigation into the feasibility of performing a substance flow analysis on carbon nanotubes.

A substance flow analysis (SFA) is a study of the flow of specific materials throughout the economy from cradle to grave. This approach has been called “a tool for analyzing the societal metabolism of substances,”. It examines and attempts to quantify the inputs of a substance or material into production, end-use applications, and ultimately end-of-life phases. Insight into the material inputs and outputs and other detail at one level or stage (e.g., production) may influence findings at other levels.

A SFA can be an appropriate tool when the material of interest is linked to a particular impact and thus warrants a more focused analysis on the “stocks and flows” and “concentrations in the environment,”. Because of the potential environmental and health impacts of carbon nanotubes (pending their penetration into products and uses), I hypothesized that the SFA approach would help shed light on the uncertain impacts. More specifically, I suspected that information on the quantity of carbon nanotubes produced would better inform understanding on the application of these substances into end uses, and that end-use information would improve the understanding of potential consequences of carbon nanotubes to users and in the environment. 

2. Methodology
3. Nanotube Overview
4. Carbon Nanotube SFA Findings
5. Conclusions

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