Soaring oil prices have recently put resource issues back in the public eye. In fact, conventional technology is exhausting its resource base at an accelerating rate, an acceleration exacerbated by the revolution of rising expectations in the less-developed world due to the global communications revolution. Nanotechnology is the only way to provide something like a sustainable First World standard of living for the entire world. Fortunately, furthermore, many resource-related nanotechnology applications involve nanostructured materials rather than full molecular machines and so are accessible in the near term.
Greatly increased energy efficiency:
Non-thermal energy use. Burning a fuel wastes most of its energy. However, utilizing chemical energy without thermalizing it, as in fuel cells, requires molecular structuring.
Focused processing. Highly specific catalysts that would generate only the desired product require nanostructuring.
Distributed fabrication. Supplanting the massive importation of raw materials into conventional factories, and their re-export as finished products, by nanoscale fabrication from local materials will make the enormous present transportation infrastructure obsolete,.
Information-intensive energy extraction
Diffuse sources. Cheap large-scale fabrication of nanostructured materials will lead to: direct use of solar power, via photovoltaics or artificial photosynthesis; thermoelectric materials to exploit small thermal gradients; piezoelectric materials to convert mechanical stress directly into electric potential. Distributed fabrication will make energy collection from diffuse sources practical, such as low-head hydropower, tidal currents and surf, "at wellhead" geothermal power.
Efficient energy management applications include materials for passive energy management, such as "smart windows"; efficient energy conversion devices such as "white LEDs"; electrosynthesis for fuel manufacture and electricity storage; better electricity storage devices such as intercalation batteries and high-performance "ultracapacitors."
As materials having strengths approaching the limits set by chemical bonds become available, they will make transportation considerably more efficient through savings in vehicle mass.
Element separation, whether for pollution control or resource extraction, is not intrinsically energy-intensive. The enormous energy costs of present-day pyrometallurgy largely result from the application of heat to force phase changes. Biosystems achieve their efficiencies by using direct molecular separation via specialized molecular machinery. "Biomimetic" molecular separation will have the effect of blurring the distinction between a "pollutant" and a "resource." The 5000 year-old paradigm of digging up and "cooking" anomalous geologic deposits to extract desired materials is coming to its end.
Change of materials mix
As nanoscale fabrication makes accessible the ultimate materials strengths set by covalent chemical bonds, the structural metals that dominate present technology will become obsolete. The carbonate rock that forms the bulk of the crustal carbon reservoir will become an important backstop resource, as will even the silicates that make up most of a rocky planet.
By vastly decreasing vehicle and payload mass, nanotechnology will make near-Earth space access considerably more economic in the relatively near term, so that solar power satellites and asteroidal metal become more attractive.