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March 22, 2007

PEN Releases LCA Report

Lynn L. Bergeson

On March 20, 2007, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) released a report entitled Nanotechnology and Life Cycle Assessment: A Systems Approach to Nanotechnology and the Environment, which summarizes the results of the October 2-3, 2006, workshop organized by PEN and the European Commission on life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA is a cradle-to-grave analysis of how a material affects ecosystems and human health. According to the report, the purpose of the October 2-3, 2006, workshop was to determine whether existing LCA tools and methods are adequate to use on a new technology. The report provides an overview of LCA and nanotechnology, discusses the current state of the art, identifies current knowledge gaps that may prevent the proper application of LCA in this field, and offers recommendations on the application of LCA for assessing the potential environmental impacts of nanotechnology, nanomaterials, and nanoproducts.

The report offers the following main conclusions identified by the workshop participants:

  • There is no generic LCA of nanomaterials, just as there is no generic LCA of chemicals.
  • The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) framework for LCA (ISO 14040:2006) is fully suitable to nanomaterials and nanoproducts, even if data regarding the elementary flows and impacts might be uncertain and scarce. Since environmental impacts of nanoproducts can occur in any life cycle stage, all stages of the life cycle of nanoproducts should be assessed in an LCA study.
  • While the ISO 14040 framework is appropriate, a number of operational issues need to be addressed in more detail in the case of nanomaterials and nanoproducts. The main problem with LCA of nanomaterials and nanoproducts is the lack of data and understanding in certain areas.
  • While LCA brings major benefits and useful information, there are certain limits to its application and use, in particular with respect to the assessment of toxicity impacts and of large-scale impacts.
  • Within future research, major efforts are needed to assess fully potential risks and environmental impacts of nanoproducts and materials (not just those related to LCA).
  • There is a need for protocols and practical methodologies for toxicology studies, fate and transport studies, and scaling approaches.
  • International cooperation between Europe and the U.S., together with other partners, is needed to address these concerns.
  • Further research is needed to gather missing relevant data and to develop user-friendly eco-design screening tools, especially ones suitable for use by small and medium sized enterprises.

The report also offers specific recommendations in the following areas:

  • Case-studies/prioritizing efforts: With limited resources, a case-study research approach could be adopted to enhance significantly knowledge on environmental impacts of nanomaterials and nanoproducts.
  • LCA studies and presentations of results: Any LCA study on nanoproducts and nanomaterials most likely suffers from high uncertainty issues.
  • Approaches.
  • Actions from stakeholders: Different stakeholders/authorities can potentially support the application and use of LCA for nanoproducts and nanomaterials through a large set of actions.