Can the smallest technology be the saviour of our largest problem?

Over the last few years climate change has become the environmental equivalent of a fashion show; suddenly it’s the new black, and everyone is talking about it. How to tackle it, what are the implications, whose responsibility is it, denying its even a ‘thing’ – all and sundry have an opinion on it. Almost uniquely however, it’s a subject that is discussed from the highest offices in the land to the water cooler (aside from Trump or Brexit).

The world’s media have finally woken up to this long-standing issue, and with naturalists being provided the platform they deserve (e.g. the Blue Planet series) to get the message out, climate change and its causes now have our full attention.

Which is all very positive, if a little late – and while the Paris Climate Agreement is a worthy attempt by many governments to take strong action, one gets the feeling that if left to politicians we will end up wading knee-deep in plastic-filled salty floodwater before too much longer.

As with many natural disaster scenarios, often the world turns to technology to help find a solution. For instance, these days it’s far easier to detect if a volcano is about to spill its guts, or warn low-lying areas of an impending tsunami. Climate-related tech is also a growing arena; from smartphone apps telling us what our carbon footprint is, to the rise in efficient, renewable, clean energy sources, there are many technology resources being deployed in the war against a warming planet. However, unlike volcanos or tectonic plate movement, the problem of climate change is omnipresent, and there is no one single solution.

One of the biggest challenges we face is in our use of plastics. In 1862 Alexander Parkes, widely regarded as the man who first invented the stuff, could have had little idea of the ensuing storm his creation would cause one hundred-and-fifty-odd years later. The very material that gave us freedom to make our lives far easier is now threatening our existence.

Yet it may not be all doom and gloom. While we can’t do much about the level of plastic waste in our oceans (beyond collecting it), could we focus on a way of producing plastics that do the same job but degrade in the same way as bio-materials? It’s not beyond the realm of reality, and to achieve such a solution we need to look at the world of nanotechnology.

In the battle against the plastic tide, using nano-sized particles such as PLA (PolyLacticAcid) can help promote and accelerate bio-degradation. Known as bio-plastics, they are not only resourced from natural sources (think corn cobs), but when formed into plastic-like materials both demonstrate the same strength and flexibility of normal plastic. They then bio-degrade completely once discarded.

The applications in the use of nanotechnology are potentially endless, as once a set of nanoparticles have been formed, it is possible to ‘tune’ these particles to demonstrate certain characteristics. Therefore it’s not just plastics that nanotech can help with. Over the last twenty years huge gains have been made in the renewable energy sector using nanotechnology to help improve the performance of solar modules through photovoltaics (PV) – helping that industry to now account for over 7%* of the world’s power output. This will only increase as we turn away from fossil fuels moving forward. Our recent Solar Sharc® product set is one of the best examples of this technology in action, as we’ve focused on adding durability to attributes such as easy-clean, anti-soiling and anti-fouling. By creating solar modules that don’t need cleaning every so often the reduction in water use can be up to 64%. All achieved through the clever use of nanotechnology and the production of specific nanoparticles – in this case silica.

Furthermore, by taking the underpinning technology that powers Solar Sharc® and using that to influence specific chemical formulations, it is possible to change the way in which coatings / resins and other materials behave. By way of example, imagine the amount of energy saved by being able to 3D print the vast majority of parts for the automotive, aerospace and nautical sectors. The reduction in the level of energy produced by large factories would be potentially huge – and as we know heavy industry is a key contributor to global warming. This could also be extended to any of our heavy industrial sectors. Imagine paints that wouldn’t need re-application for years. Less paint used = less chemical output, reduction in toxic material production etc – you get the picture.

The fact remains that nanotechnology is playing an ever larger role in almost every industry, and is changing the way in which we develop solutions to even the biggest problems. Our future could well depend on some of the smallest entities we know.
For more information on our silica nanoparticle range, please visit www.sharcmatter.com

*World Energy Organisation, 2017