A New Organism in the Industrial Ecosystem?


  • Even if nanotechnology is no more than a small mutation in the industrial ecosystem, it is recognized that production of “nanostuff” itself requires energy and possibly toxic chemicals… . [And] if there are concerns over the impacts of nanomaterials in the environment, then this provides an incentive for one of the main goals of industrial ecology: “closed loop” use of materials.

Address correspondence to:
Prof. Roland Clift
Centre for Environmental Strategies
University of Surrey
Guildford Surrey GU2 7XH, UK

The idea of industrial ecology derives from “the metaphorical power of natural ecosystems” (Ehrenfeld 2007, 73). Industrial ecology is a framework for analyzing the interactions of human production–consumption systems with natural systems. It supports the design and governance of these systems to form an integrated industrial ecosystem that has “ecological integrity and provides humans with a sustainable livelihood” (Kay 2002, 82).

What happens when human production–consumption systems introduce a new species, with at least the possibility of changing the ecosystem, perhaps displacing some of the existing species, maybe even acting synergistically with some of the others? If we believe the enthusiasts, nanotechnology could be more than just a small mutation in the overall industrial ecosystem. It could turn out to be an enabling technology that permeates and changes many sectors, perhaps converging with other technological developments. Some arch-enthusiasts think it could prove to be a disruptive technology that perturbs the system to the point of causing social change. At the risk-averse end of the scale, there have even been scares that a “gray goo” of “nanobots” could take over much of the industrial ecosystem in a form of eutrophication.

As well as the interest in nanotechnology per se, this new organism raises more general questions: How real and realizable are the benefits? Can we foresee and prevent any harmful consequences, to ourselves and to the environment? Will the technology achieve social as well as economic acceptance? This special issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology includes contributions from Karn (2008) and Allenby and Rejeski (2008), who discuss what industrial ecology has to offer for an emerging technology and what that emergence has to say for the development of industrial ecology. Eckelman and colleagues (2008) explore how industrial ecology's sister field, green chemistry, might help to design out some of the negative impacts and risks.

Nanotechnology refers to the design and application of nanomaterials, which include solid (or sometimes liquid) particles typically in the size range between 1 and 100 nanometers (i.e., 10−9 to 10−7 meters), whose properties are defined by size and surface condition rather than just the qualities of the basic material. As well as the exploitable attributes, it is precisely this characteristic of nanomaterials that makes them contentious (Hunt and Mehta 2006): If their general properties are substantially different from those of bulk materials or larger particles and the particles are in the same size range as viruses that have developed to penetrate into mammalian cells, then there may be reason to expect their toxic effects to differ from those of the bulk materials.

So nanotechnology represents the next in a succession of technologies that have been introduced with claims of economic, environmental, and social benefit—in other words, contributing to sustainable development—but have encountered strong social resistance. Nuclear power and genetically modified organisms are examples of such technologies. In both of these cases, the advocates of the technology failed to foresee the need to work on social as well as economic and technical viability. Some promoters of nanotechnology seem unwilling to learn from these lessons (Clift 2007): For example, some cosmetic companies try to avoid using nano as a descriptor, apparently in the belief that this will avoid provoking a backlash of public rejection. These concerns highlight the need to understand where risks and costs arise and can be reduced (MacCormack and Goss 2008; Reijnders 2008; Ok et al. 2008) and also how public concerns, potentially leading to rejection of the technology, could emerge (Wardak et al. 2008; Helland et al. 2008; Smiley Smith et al. 2008). Randles (2008) and Hunt (2008) argue the case for the industry to address its responsibilities within a clear ethical framework and for new approaches to governance and regulation.

Even if nanotechnology is no more than a small mutation in the industrial ecosystem, it is recognized that the production of “nanostuff” itself requires energy and possibly toxic chemicals. Şengül and colleagues (2008) give an overview of nanomanufacturing methods. Particles in the nano range cannot be made by milling larger particles,1 so nanostuff is made by phase change, usually condensation. This raises the question of whether the benefits of using the nanomaterial really outweigh the impacts of producing it. Addressing this question requires one of the basic tools of industrial ecology: life cycle assessment (LCA). Shatkin (2008) and Seager and Linkov (2008) discuss the use of LCA in decision support for a new technology. Kushnir and Sandén (2008), Healy and Isaacs (2008), and Khanna and colleagues (2008) present data on the environmental implications of producing nanomaterials, providing part of the basis for eventual examination of the real technical and economic benefits of this emerging technology. Joshi (2008) explores the sustainability of a specific possible application—to a biobased product, another topic that industrial ecology has explored in some detail.2 There is also the possibility that nanomaterials might replace more toxic materials, though definitional questions make it difficult to assess the extent of this opportunity (Fiedeler 2008).

There is an obvious distinction between nanomaterials fixed in a product and uses that necessarily lead to uncontrolled release (Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering 2004). If there are concerns over the impacts of nanomaterials in the environment, then this provides an incentive for one of the main goals of industrial ecology: “closed loop” use of materials. Could this emerging technology lead to new approaches to extended producer responsibility? This is an interesting speculation that the industrial ecology community will want to watch and learn from, along with whether this new organism really does prove to be the disruption to the industrial ecosystem that some have foreseen.

Support for this special issue was provided by the Educational Foundation of America, a private philanthropy based in Westport, Connecticut, and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, DC. As is the case with any funding of the JIE, the funders have had no role in the selection of content or in the peer review process, nor do they necessarily share the views expressed in this special issue. Responsibility for the content of the issue remains, of course, with authors and the editors.


  • 1

    The process known as “nano-milling” is complex, different from conventional comminution processes, and very energy-intensive.

  • 2

    See the special issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology on biobased products (volume 7, issue number 3–4), available at

About the Authors

Roland Clift is professor of environmental technology in the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, United Kingdom, and president-elect of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. Shannon Lloyd is a principal research engineer in the Sustainability & Process Engineering Directorate at Concurrent Technologies Corporation, based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.