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Environmental life cycle risks and benefits of nanotechnologies

O. Jolliet, Y. Wenger and M. Philbert
University of Michigan, Center for Risk Science and Communication, US

life cycle assessment, risks, benefits, nanotechnologies

This paper presents a framework analyzing in a life cycle perspective the trade-offs between benefits and risks of nanotechnologies, as a replacement for conventional technologies. It focuses on the impacts on human health and on ecosystems. Three main scientific questions need to be addressed: How to identify the Life Cycle Risks of new nano-based products and materials compared to conventional products? What are the emissions associated to nanomaterial engineering compared to the processing of conventional products? What are the mechanisms affecting fate and biological effects of nanoparticles? To analyze this, a matrix approach has been developed over the whole product life cycle (raw material extraction, manufacturing, use phase, disposal and recycling), looking at: a) the additional risks and benefits directly due to nanotechnologies compared to b) the indirect risks and impacts of nanotechnologies compared to those avoided with the conventional technologies. For each case, key factors of influence are identified. Based on this framework and on case studies, different nanoapplications are analysed: Use of nanotechnologies in electronic and microsystem can lead to performance improvement and thus to dematerialisation. However, requirement for high purity generates high electricity consumption. For medical applications, direct risks and benefits are likely to dominate and occur mostly during the use phase. Finally nanomaterial applications can cover a wide range of specific situations leading to e.g. energy savings and environmental remediation or enhancing on the contrary indirect emissions.

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