Sustainability Issue #3 November 2008

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Nanotech in our homes - great opportunities, unknown risks

New technology can transform buildings from resource guzzlers into important components of the sustainable society. At the Chalmers Campus Lindholmen this building designed by Gert Wingårdh will be erected. The building is expected to be ready in 2010, and it will be a test bed for new technologies and ideas. In Göteborg, researchers are also studying the risks posed by new technology. In a project financed by Formas, a study is made of the risks due to nanoparticles, particles that are used, inter alia, in new building materials.  

Nanotech in our homes

- great opportunities, unknown risks

By Björn Sandén, Sverker Molander, Martin Hassellöv and Hans Fogelberg

Nanotechnology is often associated with IT, with advanced pharmaceuticals or with nasty science fiction visions where monsters created by humans run amok. But now more and more people are beginning to see the opportunities, in associating nanotechnology, this symbol of the future, with its use in the construction sector - in the eyes of many people a sector associated with tradition and inertia.

  • Imagine a building  with thin but heavily insulated walls, with windows that regulate the transmission of light and heat according to the position of the sun and the desired energy balance.
  • Imagine a building that utilises solar radiation and wind, not only for the needs of the building itself but also for cars and electric mopeds which are plugged in, disconnected and are ready to go.
  • Imagine battery concrete and laminates that store energy from day to night, from summer to winter.
  • Imagine a building that filters and recirculates its own water, the walls, windows and roof of which are treated with durable coatings that are not degraded but instead break down pollutants, clean the air and remain free from mould, dirt and dust.
  • Imagine a building that reacts to your mood, controls lighting, ventilation and sound through sensitive detectors.

What nanotechnology principally offers is the possibility to design materials just as we want them to be, to utilise two hundred years of developments in physics, chemistry and biology in order to construct things with a molecular precision as good as that in natural biological systems.

No sector uses so much material and makes so many artificial surfaces as the construction sector, so what would be more natural than to unite buildings and nanotechnology into a strong partnership that will help change buildings from today's environmental culprits and energy guzzlers into natural building blocks in a sustainable society? We can see signs that this development has already started.

Strong research programme at Chalmers

In a project financed by Nordic Innovation Centre (GreenNanoCon: Commercialising Green Nano-technology in Nordic Construction) we are charting, together with researchers from Denmark and Finland, activities in this field in the Nordic countries. One of many themes at the large conference "Nanotech Northern Europe 2008" in Copenhagen in September was nanotechnology in the construction sector.

Chalmers is just now engaged on the development of a large research programme about the homes of the future (Homes for Tomorrow, H42) in which the production of new nanomaterials and multifunctional building components is an important piece of the jigsaw. 

Health risk?

  • Imagine that it is discovered that certain types of nanoparticles give rise to serious health problems, that they are not degraded in nature and that they accumulate in organisms.
  • Imagine at the same time that it is discovered that nanoparticles are emitted from functionalised surfaces in our homes and on our buildings.  

In an interdisciplinary project between Göteborg University and Chalmers, financed by Formas, we are investigating the pathway through society of two types of nanoparticles, how they behave in natural environments and  how they can impact on biological organisms.  

Assessment of the hazards posed by ordinary chemicals, in view of the enormous quantity of new molecules that are created all the time, is an almost impossible task. The nanodimension adds a further complexity. When it is not only the chemical composition of a compound but also the shape, size and surface structure of the particles that may be critical for its environmental and health effects, the need for information is multiplied many times over. At the same time, today's industrial society with its prosperity cannot be visualised without a wealth of chemical substances. 

How must risks be managed and balanced against benefits? Society is facing a serious challenge in this respect. In the project we are also investigating this issue and try to find what can be done at different levels in society. 

Nanotechnology gives power

Nanotechnology, with all its variations in the form of particles, materials and system components, creates new opportunities for solving today's global megaproblems such as climate changes and the availability of clean water. But, as with all new powerful technology, new risks are also created. No effective new product can be used without a full investigation.

The risks posed by nanoparticles and the difficulties associated with assessing these are a simple and clear example. But nanotechnology is much more than just particles. Nuclear power has made us think differently about risks. Nanotechnology will become embedded in all parts of society and will create new instruments for control, the exercise of power and weapons of mass destruction, economic restructuring and new interfaces between humans and machines. 

In the project Nanorobust financed by Mistra, we have described the development of nano-technology in Sweden and reflected on how innovative power and risk have been managed and how they might be managed. We are facing many stimulating questions on how we must best exploit nanotechnology, and in that case who exactly "we" are. 

One interesting question is how we are thinking and creating ideas about this, which, inter alia, focuses attention on the direction and priorities of research finance and, in a broader perspective, on the capacity of society as a whole for reflection, foresight and learning. 

Author :

Björn Sandén Energy and Environment, Chalmers

Sverker Molander is researcher at Environmental Systems Analysis, Energy & Environment, Chalmers University of Technology

Martin Hassellöv is researcher at the Department of Chemistry, Göteborg University

Hans Fogelberg Sociology, Göteborg University

Responsible for this page: Birgitta Bruzelius

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