The Cost of Nanotechnology

Robert Ferris, Ph.D. Strategic Planner

Robert Ferris, Ph.D.
Strategic Planner

Author: Robert Ferris, Ph.D.

Nanotechnology-enabled products deliver a step change in performance, but come with an order-of-magnitude increase in manufacturing energy consumption.

Nearly every nanotechnology article holds some sort of future promise; clean energy, reduced Carbon Dioxide emissions, or even a cure for cancer. With all these promises, however, you have to wonder if there is a downside. Is there a dirty little secret nanotechnology isn’t telling us? Some are concerned about, human toxicity, ecosystem degradation, or destructive nanobots. But none of these issues are fundamental across all nanomaterials. While some nanomaterials can negatively impact human health or the environment, many more are completely inert. In many respects, development of nanomaterial poses no greater threat to human society then the industrial revolution. But nanotechnology-enabled products are being sold now. Very few people realize that nanotechnology-enabled products will make up a $3 Trillion market in 2015. (see figure 1) So one has to ask; what is the cost of all this innovation?

Figure 1) Forecast based on Lux Research’s value chain ontology. According to Lux, projections were triangulated from bottom-up, top-down, analogical, and third-party market estimates, as well as advanced evolutionary models. (Source: Lux Research Report "Sizing Nanotechnology’s Value Chain")

Figure 1) Forecast based on Lux Research’s value chain ontology. According to Lux, projections were triangulated from bottom-up, top-down, analogical, and third-party market estimates, as well as advanced evolutionary models. (Source: Lux Research Report “Sizing Nanotechnology’s Value Chain“)

Every disruptive innovation comes at a cost and nanotechnology is no different. There is a common underlying cost to manufacturing nanomaterials. That cost is embodied energy or the total sum of all energy put into the production of a given weight of nanomaterial. Nanotechnology-enabled products require a lot of embodied energy to produce. In fact, most nanomaterials require one or two orders of magnitude more energy to produce an equal weight of bulk materials.

Why does nanotechnology require such large amounts of energy to produce? The high energy requirement is due to fundamental characteristics of nanomaterial manufacturing. Nanomaterials require ultra-high purity and ultra-low defect rates. Current manufacturing processes are low volume, low yield, high by-product formation, and often have high waste generation. All of these increase the energy requirement for a given amount of nanomaterial.

High purity and low defect requirements are fundamental to nanotechnology. To accurately control nanomaterial properties, the manufacturing process must be reliable along the atomic length scale. For example, Gold and Silver nanoparticles require 99.999% purity. Also, the recent transition to ultra-high purity Cobalt for semiconductor processing requires 99.9995% pure Cobalt. To accomplish this purity, nanomaterials typically have to be processed at elevated temperatures & pressures, use large amounts of organic solvents, or under controlled environments. All these increase the embodied energy of the produced nanomaterial.

Let’s start with an embodied energy comparison of nanomaterials to bulk materials. Concrete for example, requires only 1.1 MJ to produce 1 kg. Aluminum, on the other hand, sets a high-bar of 155 MJ per kg. In between these two extremes sit common materials like glass (15 MJ/kg), stainless steel (56.7MJ/kg), and PVC (77 MJ/kg). Aluminum required more energy because of the elevated temperatures (~1800F) used during smelting via the Hall-Heroult process. In comparison, single walled carbon nanotube (SWCNT) production require between 140 and 880 MJ/kg. The range depends on the process used during production. For example, the high-pressure carbon monoxide (HiPCO) process requires the lowest energy but only produces fibrous, un-bound SWCNTs. On the other hand, the chemical vapor deposition (CVD) process required 7x the energy to produce high purity SWCNTs that are bound to a substrate or source catalyst. Each process created SWCNT that perform differently and for different applications. An extreme example of high embodied energy nanomaterials is Cadmium Selenium quantum dots (CdSeQDs) for advanced solar cells. CsSeQDs require 70,000 MJ/kg to produce only 1 kg of product. That’s 587 gallons of gasoline! The high embodied energy is due to the excessive amounts of organic solvents used during processing.

Figure 2) Comparison between aluminium smelting plant in Russia (left) and a SWCNT Chemical Vapor Deposition process (right). The Krasnoyarsk aluminium smelting plant is the second largest in the world producing around one million tonnes of aluminium each year. SWCNT are grown on a flat substrate at 650° C on a 5 nm Co catalyst seed layer.   (Image from: aluminium-stock.com & surreynanosystems)

Figure 2) Comparison between aluminium smelting plant in Russia (left) and a SWCNT Chemical Vapor Deposition process (right). The Krasnoyarsk aluminium smelting plant is the second largest in the world producing around one million tonnes of aluminium each year. SWCNT are grown on a flat substrate at 650° C on a 5 nm Co catalyst seed layer.
(Image from: aluminium-stock.com & surreynanosystems)

A recent publication by H.C. Kim and V. Fthenakis surveyed the embodied energy of various nanotechnologies. Figure 3 presents a plot of the embodied energy (also known as primary energy) for various nanomaterials. Some valuable trends can be found in this plot. First, not all nanotechnologies require more energy to process. Nanoclay/PHB is a notable blend of nanotechnology and bulk materials to product a lighter alternative to the steel used in automobile chassis. Another contrast is the increase in embodied energy when moving from mirco-TiO2 particle production and nano-TiO2 particle Traditional TiO2 powders have particle diameters ranging between 200 and 500 nanometers and are used in paints, coatings, and ointments. (see Ti-Pure® fact sheet) Nano-TiO2 particles, however, have a diameter of less than 100 nanometers and are used as a photocatalyst and antiseptic. The overarching trend from the chart, however, is that nanomaterials have orders of magnitude higher embodied energy than bulk materials, with the highest embodied energy being nanotube produced with 1 GJ/kg.

Figure 3) Embodied energy (primary energy) of various nanotechnologies. Reference: H.C. Kim, and V. Fthenakis; Life Cycle Energy and Climate Change Implications of Nanotechnologies. Journal of Industrial Ecology; 2012; 17(4) p. 528

Figure 3) Embodied energy (primary energy) of various nanotechnologies. Reference: H.C. Kim, and V. Fthenakis; Life Cycle Energy and Climate Change Implications of Nanotechnologies. Journal of Industrial Ecology; 2012; 17(4) p. 528

So, what is the impact of the increased energy required to produce nanotechnology-enabled products? The first concern by environmentalists is the increasing trend of carbon release due to production. Indeed, hydrocarbons are the primary underlying fuel for most of the processing methods. Even flash-arc or plasma-based processes pull energy from the grid, which is primarily fed by coal-burning power plants. Pressing economic concerns revolve around production cost. As nanotechnology reaching large-scale production, it could further increase the net industrial energy consumption, which already accounts for over 50% of the total energy consumption.

Financially, investors will have to consider energy price volatility and exposure risk prior to investing. The ROI of energy intensive operations could change dramatically with a disruption in the global energy landscape. Venture capital and angel investors should consider energy requirements prior to investing in nanotechnology-based start-ups. Larger organizations need to consider the minimum acceptable criteria for their customers. There are a number of ways to produce the same or similar nanomaterial and scientists often innovate around their field of expertise. This may not translate into the most cost-effective process for their customers needs. Investors and business leaders need to consider the minimum acceptable criteria and then find the most cost-effective method to achieve that criterion. Over time, the invisible hand of a free economy will guide the market towards the right nanotechnology-production process, but forethought can save billions of wasted dollars.

Scale and efficiency of nanomaterial production will also need to improve over time. Financial metrics, such as return on capital, will improve with increasing production scale. Eventually, technical challenges associated with nanomaterial production will be guided by the economic impact of process decisions. In the near term, business leaders should implement success metrics that focus on cost and energy demand reduction. This will guide research and engineering groups towards operational improvements.

CBI: Polypropylene

Figure 5) Photo of a 9.5 million metric ton polypropylene plant operated by Lummus Novolen Technology GmbH. (Image link). While the reaction is exothermic, liquefied reactor gas is evaporated to cool the process and hydrogen is added to control the molecular weight. (link for additional details)

Fortunately, there is hope for nanotechnology. Lifecycle energy estimates show that nanotechnology reduces total energy consumption. In large part this is due to materials lasting longer, weighing less, and improving efficiency during operation. For example, the energy invested in producing a CdSeQD solar cell will more than be paid back by the incremental energy captured over the module’s life. Also, the weight reduction of Nano-clay composites will reduce the fuel consumption for automobiles; resulting in a net reduction in CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Regardless, energy demand need to be brought into the forefront of the nanotechnology commercialization conversation. The embodied energy estimates for nanotechnology need to guide innovation focus. The embodied energy of production can come from a variety of sources. But even if the energy was free, current production methods for nanomaterials require extreme amounts of energy, propagating the dependency on energy. Commercialization of nanotechnology-enabled products needs to consider the energy load and source. As innovation is the engine for pushing nanotechnology forward, energy demand will be the bottleneck for holding nanotechnology back.

Stay tuned: My next post will be about 3D printing and Nanotechnology.

Robert Ferris, Ph.D. is a strategic planner with Emerson Process Managements. He holds a bachelors and masters in chemical engineering, an MBA in new technology commercialization, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. He has an extensive background in nanotechnology development and advanced process control.

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Posted Tuesday, September 16th, 2014 under Nanotechnology.

One comment so far

  1. Or you produce your power from your solar cells to power your facility. Companies like Quantum Materials Corp that makes Quantum Dots and Metal Oxides; and their subsidiary, Solterra Renewable Technologies Inc. developing the next generation of solar cells is combining the benefits of both nanotechnologies to become more energy efficient and earth friendly in the future. Which came first the Chicken or the egg? In nanotechnology is will be the Quantum Dots and then the solar cells, and a myriad of other nano quantum dot devices, so it may not be here yet but that bottleneck just got a whole lot wider and you can see the technology coming and sooner than you think.

    Interested in investing in Quantum Dots or Quantum Materials Corp/Solterra Renewable Technologies, Inc.? OTCQB ticker: QTMM

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