Feature Article

Is Nano a No-No? Nanotechnology Advances into Buildings

Using an “ink” that includes nanoparticles, materials the size of a billionth of a meter, Nanosolar “prints” thin-film solar photovoltaic cells on a foil substrate. The particles self-assemble into a semiconductor that drives electricity production.

Photo: Nanosolar, Inc.
By Tristan RobertsIt’s revolutionary, it’s the next big thing, and it’s going to change everything. The media and industry representatives have described nanotechnology with so much excitement in the last decade, and at such a growing pace, that to illustrate the trend one investment firm has measured the explosion of this coverage with what it calls a nanotechnology hype index.

Nanotechnology deals with materials at the level of 1 to 100 nanometers, with a nanometer (nm) being a billionth of a meter. Something so small is virtually unimaginable, so scientists have bent over backwards to try to put it in perspective. A man’s beard grows a few nanometers in the time it takes him to raise a razor to his face Each of those hairs is 80,000 nanometers thick. The ratio of a meter to a nanometer is the same as that of the Earth to a marble. The smallest things visible to the naked human eye are 10,000 nanometers.

Industry proponents say that this small technology will have a giant effect on green building, both doing old things better—yielding better performance from insulation, lower costs for photovoltaics, and greater strength from reduced structural masses—and creating products that haven’t been imagined before—from self-cleaning roads and fabrics to electricity-generating coatings and more efficient batteries. Some researchers have also worried that nanotechnology could damage our health and environment in new ways, like turning previously nontoxic materials into toxic ones and putting undetectable, virtually uncontrollable pollutants into soil and groundwater.

At the same time, market consumption of nanomaterials is accelerating. According to the Freedonia Group, a market-research firm, there was $1 billion in worldwide demand for nanomaterials in 2006, most of it in electronics but 3% of it in construction. Freedonia says demand will grow to $4.2 billion by 2011 and $100 billion by 2025. By then, healthcare will be the biggest sector, with 50% of the market, predicts Freedonia, but construction will claim 7%, or $7 billion per year.

This article separates hype from reality while looking at a few areas where nanotechnology—or simply “nanotech”—could realistically advance environmental building goals. It also looks at health and environmental concerns of all kinds and what manufacturers and regulators are doing about them.

Published March 1, 2008