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Detecting & recovering nano-sized resources

While it's clear that nanotechnologies will play a large and essential role in the conversion to a sustainable, dMASS economy, they also pose potential risks.

Risks related to nanoparticles released into our environment are largely unknown. Nanoparticles could pose a threat to human health through water and food supplies as well as dispersal in the atmosphere. Large amounts could reduce the overall diversity or complexity of the biosphere. We do know that pharmaceuticalsplastics, and other substances are turning up in the food chains of humans and many other organisms, but the effects are just beginning to be studied, and the fate of nano-sized particles from emerging technologies is not yet understood.

From the standpoint of mining above grade, dispersed nanoparticles are difficult to detect and recover. This means that what begins as a valuable resource becomes waste. Gold, for example, has been used throughout history in quantities that could be recovered and reused repeatedly. Today it's being used in such tiny amounts in electronics that it's being "consumed" for the first time.

That's why I'm particularly interested in some of the new technologies that address detecting, separating, and recovering nano-sized resources.

A recent dMASS Resource Fix featured a molecular sorting technique that enables materials to be broken down into their constituent elements. Another profiled a new technology for detecting invisible amounts of gold and other metals that in the past would have been discarded.

Now another piece of the puzzle is emerging that could be an important safeguard. It's a sensor system made of "sticky electrodes" that can detect free nano-particles and help mitigate impacts on biological systems.

Innovations in resource detection may help manage risks associated with nanotechnology, as well as enhance resource recovery abilities.



Resource Fix: Thin materials for solar paint

How do you create extremely thin, flexible, yet strong structures? Scientists have been working for some time on “stacking” layers of 2D materials, or materials that are just one atom thick, to create ultrathin devices.

Now scientists from the University of Manchester have been exploring techniques to stack several layers of materials, including graphene, to create photoactive structures – in other words, extremely thin, efficient solar cells. Their method could be used to create solar coatings or paint for buildings.

Solutions that lead to the development of lighter, thinner technologies have the potential to reduce resource use significantly - just think about the difference in mass between a layer of paint and a typical solar cell. For more developments in graphene research, explore the University of Manchester's research hub.




Resource Fix: Cooling without air conditioners

When it comes to keeping buildings cool in warm climates when the sun is shining, the standard solution has been mechanical air conditioners. In fact, the development of artificial cooling for buildings has enabled people to live and work in more extreme climates. Today, the amount of energy used for cooling is climbing steadily. Rather than making air conditioners more efficient to reduce energy consumption, what if there was a different way to cool a building?

Engineers at Stanford have developed a cooling panel that could cool buildings and even cars when the sun is shining. The panel incorporates nanostructured materials to reflect sunlight and effectively radiate heat back into space. It’s a simple structure with no moving parts and does not require power to operate.

The new device is capable of achieving a net cooling power in excess of 100 watts per square meter. By comparison, today’s standard 10-percent-efficient solar panels generate the about the same amount of power. That means Fan’s radiative cooling panels could theoretically be substituted on rooftops where existing solar panels feed electricity to air conditioning systems needed to cool the building. To put it a different way, a typical one-story, single-family house with just 10 percent of its roof covered by radiative cooling panels could offset 35 percent its entire air conditioning needs during the hottest hours of the summer.

When these innovators approached the issue of cooling, they set aside the notion of air conditioning as we’ve come to think of it and found a different way to deliver a benefit people need with fewer resources. Their solution will look nothing like air conditioners on the market today. What other products are ripe for a similar transformation?