Tag Archives: climate and energy: Over-heated promises and hot air?

Thoughts on part 3 of (PBS) Nova’s Making Stuff series

Since the title of the programme was Making Stuff Cleaner, my hopes were up. Anyone who reads me with any frequency knows that I’m obsessed with windows, especially the self-cleaning type. Sadly, my hopes for part 3 of (PBS) Nova’s Making Stuff series were frustrated as the focus was largely on cars (with Jay Leno being prominently featured) and petroleum products as they pertain to climate change and energy requirements.

Leno, for anyone who may not know, is a serious car collector and, as one could see, he’s also well informed about the history of the car and alternatives to the car’s current reliance on petroleum products.

As I’m learning to expect, they didn’t talk about the nanotechnology research for several minutes. I didn’t time it for part three but in part one it was roughly 30 minutes before they got to it.

There was a lot of discussion about the various kinds of batteries that are available and new, more environmentally clean batteries being developed, while we got to watch a lot of people driving cars.

The car companies are also working on materials to replace the plastics that are used in car interiors. Fascinatingly, one project involves growing a car part from bacteria. (This reminds of a visual artist who grows clothing from bacteria as mentioned in my Bacteria as couture and transgenic salmon? posting, July 12, 2010.)

It was a very upbeat, positive take on the work being done to find new energy sources and to deal with climate change issues. I think that someone using this programme as a primary source of information might be persuaded we are much closer to replacing our use of petroleum with more environmentally sound practices than is the case. The Friends of the Earth (FoE), civil society group, released a fairly pointed report in November 2010 titled, Nanotechnology, climate and energy: Over-heated promises and hot air?, which suggests otherwise. I’m given to understand that there is good research in this report but anything not supporting their main thesis has been omitted.

The two agendas: Making Stuff Cleaner programme and FOE’s report, curiously enough, mirror each other with their relentless insistence on interpreting the information in a light that highlights their perspective only. Let’s not discount either; let’s refer to both, judiciously.

I did miss part 2 of the series, Making Stuff Smaller and cannot view it on the PBS website since I’m  not living in the right region. Next week, the fourth and final part: Making Stuff Smarter.

ETA Feb.4.11: According my NISE Net newsletter for Feb. 2011, tonight’s episode of tv programme Jeopardy will feature Making Stuff  as a full category. (For anyone not familiar Je0pardy,  it’s a quiz show where contestants choose categories of answers for which they must determine the questions. E.g. The category ‘Whose Bob?’ might feature the clue ‘birds’ to which the contestant would reply, ‘What kind of animal are bobolinks?’)  I’m not sure how including the category ‘Making Stuff’ will work given that there’s one more episode to be broadcast. From the newsletter,

For those of you Jeopardy! fans out there, Making Stuff will be a full category on the program airing Friday, February 4th.

McGill green chemistry breakthrough in Québec Science’s top ten list; cinnamon green chemistry

McGill University researchers, Chao-Jun Li, Audrey Moores and their colleagues, earned their spot in Québec Science’s top 10 list of 2010 with a nanotech catalyst that makes it possible to reduce the use of toxic heavy metals from chemical processes. From the news release,

Catalysts are substances used to facilitate and drive chemical reactions. Although chemists have long been aware of the ecological and economic effects of traditional chemical catalysts and do attempt to reuse their materials, it is generally difficult to separate the catalyzing chemicals from the finished product. The team’s discovery does away with this chemical process altogether.

Li, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Organic/Green Chemistry, neatly describes the new catalyst as a way to “use a magnet and pull them out!” The technology is known as nanomagnetics and involves nanoparticles of a simple iron magnet. Nanoparticles are sized between 1 and 100 nanometres (a strand of hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide). The catalyst itself is chemically benign and can be efficiently recycled. In terms of practical applications, their method can already be used to generate the reactions that are required for example in pharmaceutical research, and could in the future be used to achieve reactions necessary for research in other industries and fields. The discovery was published in Highlights in Chemical Science in January 18, 2010, in an article authored by Li, Moores, Tieqiang Zeng, Wen-Wen Chen, Ciprian M. Cirtiu, and Gonghua Song.

Li is known as one of the world’s pioneers in Green Chemistry, an entirely new approach to the science that tries to avoid the use of toxic, petrochemical-based solvents in favour of basic substances. More than 97 per cent of all products we use involves one or more chemical reactions. The future of not only the trillion-dollar chemical industry, but also the overall economy and the health of ecosystems and populations around the world rests on our ability to find sustainable solutions to chemical use. With 25 key researchers, 117 graduate students and more than 15 postdoctoral fellows working at ways to reduce the toxicity of chemical processes, McGill is a recognized global leader in the field. The University’s pioneering work in Green Chemistry dates back to the 1960s, when phrases such as “chemicals from renewable resources” and “non-polluting chemicals” were used.

The magazine, Québec Science, is asking its readers to vote by Feb. 25, 2011 for the top discovery of 2010. You can go here to vote (you will need to be able to read French).

Feb. 17, 2010, I featured this McGill team’s 2010 green chemistry (starting in the 3rd paragraph).

Since we’re on the topic of green chemistry, I now have the opportunity to mention a Nov. 29, 2010 news item on Nanowerk about how cinnamon could be used to replace dangerous chemicals used to create nanoparticles (from the news item),

Gold nanoparticles, tiny pieces of gold so small that they can’t be seen by the naked eye, are used in electronics, healthcare products and as pharmaceuticals to fight cancer. Despite their positive uses, the process to make the nanoparticles requires dangerous and extremely toxic chemicals. While the nanotechnology industry is expected to produce large quantities of nanoparticles in the near future, researchers have been worried about the environmental impact of the global nanotechnological revolution.

Now, a study by a University of Missouri research team, led by MU scientist Kattesh Katti, curators’ professor of radiology and physics in the School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Science, senior research scientist at the University of Missouri Research Reactor and director of the Cancer Nanotechnology Platform, has found a method that could replace nearly all of the toxic chemicals required to make gold nanoparticles. The missing ingredient can be found in nearly every kitchen’s spice cabinet – cinnamon.

… The new process uses no electricity and utilizes no toxic agents. …

During the study, the researchers found that active chemicals in cinnamon are released when the nanoparticles are created. When these chemicals, known as phytochemicals, are combined with the gold nanoparticles, they can be used for cancer treatment. The phytochemicals can enter into cancer cells and assist in the destruction or imaging of cancer cells, Katti  said.

“Our gold nanoparticles are not only ecologically and biologically benign, they also are biologically active against cancer cells,” Katti said.

As the list of applications for nanotechnology grows in areas such as electronics, healthcare products and pharmaceuticals, the ecological implications of nanotechnology also grow. When considering the entire process from development to shipping to storage, creating gold nanoparticles with the current process can be incredibly harmful to the environment, Chanda [Nripen Chanda, a research associate scientist] said.

Counterbalancing some of this ‘feel good’ green chemistry news focused on reducing environmental impacts posed by chemical processes is a report debunking some the nanotechnology community’s ‘green’ claims, released Nov. 17, 2010, by the Friends of the Earth (FoE), Nanotechnology, climate and energy: Over-heated promises and hot air? You can view the report here. There’s also a new report, released Dec. 17, 2010,  from the ETC Group, The Big Downturn? Nanogeopolitics. As you can tell from the title, the report is more of an overview (it’s an update of a 2005 report) but it does provide information about green nanotechnology. I hope to have some time in the next month or so to discuss these reports rather than just refer to them.