Nanotechnology Project

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Environment, Health and Safety Research

Carbon Nanotube Synthesis: Assessing Economic and Environmental Tradeoffs in Process Design

Project Information

Principal InvestigatorJacqueline Isaacs
InstitutionNortheastern University
Project URLView
Relevance to ImplicationsSubstantial
Class of NanomaterialEngineered Nanomaterials
Impact SectorCross-cutting
Broad Research Categories Risk Management
NNI identifier

Funding Information

Anticipated Total Funding$129,989.00
Annual Funding$64,994.50
Funding SourceNSF
Funding MechanismExtramural
Funding SectorGovernment
Start Year2004
Anticipated End Year2006


This proposal was received in response to Nanoscale Science and Engineering initiative, NSF 03-043, category NER. The extraordinary properties of carbon nanotubes (e.g., electrical, mechanical and chemical) have led to research in drug delivery and medical diagnostic applications, and offer great promise for delivering new and improved environmental technologies. However, it appears that few researchers are including green engineering principles in the development of these processes, and with the general concern over nanotech development, it would be prudent to assess the tradeoffs in process alternatives while the processes are in their developmental phases, to allow creation of more sustainable processes. This project therefore addresses societal implications of nanotechnology. The potential for harmful societal implications of nanotechnology has generated policy analyses and legislative congressional hearings. Many organizations have been responsive to the need to address potential consequences, including the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), by holding workshops, and colloquia to address issues that cross disciplinary boundaries. A draft document on guidelines for responsible nanotechnology development practices is available on the Foresight Institute’s website, but most scientists and engineers are not aware of its existence. Although the document includes some specific recommendations intended to provide a basis for responsible development of molecular nanotechnology, it does not address methods for researchers to assess responsible process design. The proposed research addresses this need. Given the potential benefits and concerns over the use of single wall carbon nanotubes (SWNTs), this proposal focuses on assessment of the tradeoffs among the technological, environmental and economic characteristics of SWNT synthesis. In a collaborative one-year Nano Exploratory Research (NER) plan, the principal investigators at Northeastern University (NU) and Wake Forest University (WFU) will gather pertinent information on single wall nanotube (SWNT) processes: products created, materials used, effluents generated to the environment, and energy used. WFU will provide this information to develop inventories for their SWNT processes. NU will develop life cycle analysis (LCA) approaches to track materials. NU will gather technical process information from WFU to develop technical cost models (TCMs) to assess the process economics for scaled-up operations, including environmental costs for effluent disposal and worker safety. The cost models will include tangible environmental process costs. WFU will track environmental aspects of lab-scale SWNT arc, CVD, and laser-assisted CVD processes with regard to energy utilized, waste gas emissions, solid waste production and possible airborne hazards for production of SWNTs. Based on NU’s modeling results for process improvement, WFU will run trial experiments and characterize the resulting products. NU and WFU will collaboratively assess inputs and determine preliminary results for the most environmentally benign approaches to SWNT synthesis. The expertise of the PIs is complementary. NU has a track record of successful development and utilization of LCA and TCM models, while WFU is a leader in the development of process alternatives for the synthesis of various types of single-walled nanotubes. Given the potential benefits and concerns over the use of SWNTs, and the fact that many new (and existing) businesses are currently working to commercialize the process, assessment of the tradeoffs among the technological, environmental and economic characteristics is critical. The intellectual merit in this work resides in the application of green engineering principles to developmental nanotechnologies. There is significant broader impact associated with the development of environmentally benign nanotech process design. Results from this one-year project are expected to provide information on alternative process choices that will allow researchers and process developers to make informed decisions for appropriate use and scale-up of the technology. Through this project, laboratory researchers, graduate students and undergraduates (through a course module) will become aware of the associated societal and ethical issues, and can work to incorporate appropriate tradeoffs during process development. Dissemination of this work through the existing NSEC and MRSEC Centers will allow other researchers to become familiar with environmentally benign process design practices.