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Life Cycle Economic and Environmental Implications of Using Nanocomposites in Automobiles
By reducing the energy and materials required to provide goods and services, nanotechnology has the potential to provide more appealing products while improving environmental performance and sustainability. Whether and how soon this potential could be realized depends on phrasing the right research and development (R&D) questions and pursuing commercialization intelligently. A sufficiently broad perspective at the outset is required to understand economic and technical feasibility, estimate life cycle environmental implications, and minimize unanticipated negative impacts. The rapid rise in federally funded nanotechnology R&D dictates that consideration of societal benefits will have a large role in setting the R&D agenda. We estimate potential selected economic and environmental impacts associated with the use of nanotechnology in the automotive industry. In particular, we project the material processing and fuel economy benefits associated with using a clay−polypropylene nanocomposite instead of steel or aluminum in light-duty vehicle body panels. Although the manufacturing cost is currently higher, a life cycle analysis shows potential benefits in reducing energy use and environment discharges by using a nanocomposite design.