Friday, October 23, 2009

Defining Sustainability

A recent article in Physics World Magazine by George Crabtree titled, "The Road to Sustainability", addresses the problem of sustainable energy production and sets out three criteria for sustainability. An energy technology must last a long time, do no harm, and leave the environment unchanged. In assessing these criteria the full life cycle of the energy process needs to be considered, including construction and disposal.

This analysis is right on target, but as the author notes, the immediacy of the problems facing us means that;
we do not have the luxury of achieving full sustainability for all of our next-generation energy technologies, we can use these definitions to select our strategic sustainability targets and track our progress toward achieving them.

The article discusses the relative merits of solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels and electric cars. For each of these, Crabtree argues, true sustainability requires significant technological advances. To achieve these, he looks to nanoscience for the answers;

Nanotubes offer versatile and promising opportunities for controlling energy conversion at the nano-scale. TiO2 nanotubes like those pictured above are inexpensive, chemically inert, photostable, provide high surface-to-volume ratio and have band gaps that support sustainable energy technologies like solar water splitting, dye-sensitized solar cells and transparent conducting electrodes. They can be prepared by a variety of electrochemical processes, doped to tune their band gaps and decorated to promote surface catalytic activity.

Crabtree has taken a "technology will save us" approach that promises much even as it relies on unknown and untested technologies. Missing from the article is any discussion of conservation, downsizing or localizing where truly significant savings can be achieved using technology that already exists.

Sustainability, then also requires an acknowledgment of the limits of growth, and that we must design our energy production and usage to fit within those limits.


At 3:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole thing about nanotubes sounds pretty interesting, but I guess my concern would be that solutions involving future technology are pretty much useless in the present.
Future technology, while sounding attractive, is not a practical approach that utilizes the resources available in the present and instead stakes hopes on a solution too highly-sophisticated to employ when it is suggested. Reminds me of the proposal to construct a giant sunshade in space to combat global warming...
Such solutions could lead to the whole issue of unintended consequences of new technological advances. I agree with you that we shouldn't look to "unknown and untested technologies" and should look for solutions that use the resources available in the present.

At 12:53 AM, Blogger Suhana Ansari said...

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At 2:23 PM, Blogger said...

Thanks for the post. I have to say I like the way George thinks. There are entire legions full of power alternatives. One needs to do research and share the data- What will work- how well, for how much, Is it worth it? Everything comes with a cost. Oh -- and by the way, we just launched a green site of our own! Check out our blog 'The WormFarm Chronicles'... Right now we're talking about worm composting in the dining room with her permission --

At 10:51 PM, Blogger Sony said...

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