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Home > Introduction > Articles > Ineke Malsch > Nanotechnology helps solve the world's energy problems

Nanotechnology helps solve the world’s energy problems

Ineke Malsch for Nanoforum

Published here April 16th, 2003. Reprinted with permission. © Nanoforum

Abstract: In this paper I present a new European network, Nanoforum, which will function as a Gateway to Nanotechnology in Europe. This network is funded by the European Commission, Growth programme. I will start my presentation with some interim results of the first product of this network: a report on "Nanotechnology helps solve the world’s energy problems." The report is currently being written by Kathy Terryl of CMP Cientifica in Spain, Sandrine Locatelli of Minatec in France, Oonagh Loughran of the Institute of Nanotechnology in Scotland, UK, Morten Bøgedal of Nordic Nanotech in Denmark, Holger Hofschulz and colleagues of VDI, Germany and me.

This report and many other items will be published on the web-site, which will be online from January 2003 until at least July 2006.

Introduction to "Nanotechnology helps solve the world’s energy problems"

The report on "Nanotechnology helps solve the world’s Energy problems" is addressed to a general audience. The aim is to explain how nanotechnology can help address present and future sustainable energy needs. We start with a short explanation of nanotechnology, focusing on why it is relevant for addressing the world’s future energy needs. The rest of the report takes the angle of the main fields of sustainable energy policies and research: renewables, conventional energy, more energy efficiency in industrial production, and energy saving. In each chapter, we start by sketching the present situation and needs for more sustainable (technical) solutions, and existing scenarios of relevant institutions in the EU member and associated states, and the European Commission. Then we review present projects and results from national and European nanotechnology research which can contribute to solving these needs. The relevant technologies and applications include: solar cells, hydrogen and fuel cells, batteries, improvement of light bulbs, fossil fuel etc with nanostructured materials and nanopowders, isolation materials, membranes and catalysts, etc. The report ends with a short conclusion and contains an extensive list of literature and internet resources for further reading.

Renewable Energy

In 2000, all renewables contributed only 13.8% of the world’s energy supply. This includes 2.3% hydroenergy, 11% combustible renewables and waste, and 0.5% other, including geothermal, solar, wind, heat etc. The outlook for 2010 is a reduction in all renewables to 12.9% and for 2020 to 12.3% of total energy supply, in the reference scenario, assuming no new measures are taken. (IEA, world energy statistics 2002). Total energy consumption is forecast to grow by 20% by 2020. CO2 production will grow by 14% unless new policy measures are implemented. Due to the Kyoto agreement the EU needs to reduce CO2 production by 8% compared to 1990. They are committed to increasing the share of renewables in total energy supply from 6-12% and to improve energy efficiency. Energy security is also a reason for some governments to invest in alternative energy sources. Energy security means that governments want to reduce the dependence on one energy source, such as oil, the supply of which can be threatened by conflicts in strategic regions such as the middle east.

If all measures governments consider at the moment are implemented, IEA expects renewables to take a larger share of energy supply. IEA does not appear to directly consider technological innovation as a driver of the uptake of renewable energy sources, even though they do include forecasts of cost reductions in some renewable energy technologies.

The company Shell does reflect on new technologies, in a scenario "Energy Needs, Choices and Possibilities; Scenarios to 2050" (2001). They consider the potential breakthroughs in Solar PV or Hydrogen the coming decades. They explicitly mention nanotechnologies including nanotubes. The first scenario, Dynamics as Usual, foresees that the share of renewable energy will rise fast until 2020, followed by stagnation and a next generation of renewables after 2030. The share of renewables other than biofuels could be 22% of primary energy production in 2050. The other scenario, The Spirit of the Coming Age, outlines the emergence of a Hydrogen economy, based on technological breakthroughs including Carbon nanotubes and nanofibres. The share of renewables other than biofuels could be 15% of primary energy production in 2050.

EU Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin encouraged EU member states and industry to increase investment in sustainable nanotechnology applications including energy storage and distribution, in a recent speech.

Solar Photovoltaics

Solar PhotoVoltaic electricity production is the most obvious technology where nanostructured materials and nanotechnology are contributing to technology development. Currently, the world market for solar PV panels is about 400MW per year in 2001 (source: Photon International 9/2002, p 30, Solar PV is already competitive in electricity production for homes or villages in remote areas without a connection to the electricity grid (source: Franz Karg in Shell Venster, 2002). Governments in the US, Europe and Japan are subsidising both technology development and installation of PV modules on roofs and integrated in new buildings for private homes, companies, or even churches (in Germany). The dominant technologies are at the moment mono or multicrystalline silicon, together about 80% of market share in 2000, expected to diminish to about 70% in 2010 (source: Sarasin Bank in Photon International 9/2002, p 30). The solar cells are produced by sawing 0.2-0.3 mm thin wafers from lumps of silicon (Ronald van Zolingen, Technical University of Eindhoven, Netherlands). The problem is that this uses a lot of expensive material, about half of which gets wasted in the sawing process.

Thin film nanostructured alternatives which are currently on the market use an active layer of microns thickness, deposited on a cheap substrate such as glass. These alternatives include amorphous silicon, which is best known from its use in pocket calculators, but is also used in solar panels, on the market for about 15 years. Amorphous silicon is cheaper than crystalline silicon, because it uses 300x less active material. The efficiency is much lower, less than 10% compared to 15%.

Two other available thin film alternatives which entered the market in 2001 are Copper Indium diSelenide (CIS), and Cadmium Telluride CdTe. The market chances of the CdTe technology may be diminished because of environmental concerns. Cadmium is a toxic material. In a report published August 2002, the PV market analyst Sarasin & Cie Bank expects CIS to achieve a market share of 5% (65.5MW), and CdTe of 4% (50.9MW) in 2010 ( , Reviewed in Photon International 9/2002, p 30).

Metallic III-V high performance cells are mostly used in space applications, but also in concentrator cells. Concentrator cells consist of a relatively expensive efficient solar cell, and a device which funnels the incoming sunlight from a wider area to the cell. In the lab, efficiencies up to 40% have been measured. But real world manufacturing never achieves the same high efficiencies.

One problem with thin film solar PV based on nanotechnology is that energy conversion is even less efficient than in crystalline silicon. According to a spokesperson from BP Solar (2002), the main bottleneck in thin film PV manufacturing is that nobody can produce large enough areas of the thin films on an industrial scale.

Longer term alternatives include the organic Grätzel cell, first invented in 1991 by prof. Michael Grätzel (EPFL, Switzerland). The principle is also the basis for other research on solid state variants. Prof. Joop Schoonman at the Technical University of Delft, Netherlands aims to replace the liquid electrolyte with a conducting polymer or inorganic material such as FeS, CuS, CuInS. (Web-site Institute of Nanotechnology, 30 August 2001).

Grätzel cells

The organic Grätzel solar cell consists of a 10μm thin layer of Titanium Dioxide TiO2 particles, which are 20 nm in diameter. Organic dye molecules are adsorbed in the pores between the TiO2 particles, surrounded by an electrolyte fluid. The cell is completed by two transparent electricity conducting electrodes, and a catalyst. The efficiency of Grätzel cells is much lower than of commercial crystalline silicon (around 7-8% in stead of around 15%). Therefore they are not competitive in the main market for Solar PV. The EU Nanomax project (1-1-2002 to 31-12-2004) aims to improve this performance to 15%. Prof. Wim Sinke of ECN in the Netherlands co-ordinates it.

Some start-up companies are already producing Grätzel cells for niche markets, such as the following three. The company Greatcell (now part of Leclanché, a battery producing company in Switzerland) has developed the technology further and now offers its first product. This solar powered clock can work indoors without a battery. It can work indoor, because the organic dye sensitive solar cells can convert low light intensities in electricity.

In Australia, the Sustainable Energy Development Authority SEDA is investing US$368,000 in a project to integrate Grätzel organic dye solar cells into the walls of the CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle. The start up Sustainable Technologies International Ltd (STI) will deliver the 200m2 PV panels. (source: Photon International 9/2002, p 27)

Nanotechnology is not really difficult, as this example shows: Even a child can make organic solar cells including nanostructured material! The company Mansolar in the Netherlands manufactures and sells educational kits for school children to make their own organic solar cell, using blackcurrant juice or hibiscus tea as the dye. The company started in 2000 as a spin-off from the Energy Centre Netherlands ECN in Petten.


There is a lot of discussion at the moment about the Hydrogen Economy, where hydrogen will be the dominant fuel, converted into electricity in fuel cells, leaving only water as waste product. The hydrogen is not freely available in nature in large quantities, so it must be produced by conversion of other energy sources, including fossil fuels and renewables. Only renewables based hydrogen production can contribute to CO2 emission reduction. Current renewable production methods of hydrogen include H2 production from biomass, from water by electrolysis (where the electricity has been produced by wind, solar or hydroenergy), and the Millennium Cell alternative, Hydrogen on Demand. This company is based in Eatontown, New Jersey, USA since 1998, and has a patented process in which a catalysed reaction between water and sodium borohydrate produce hydrogen for applications in cars. The advantage is that the storage of the sodium borohydrate is inherently safe. It is a derivative of borax, which is a natural raw material with substantial natural reserves.

Hydrogen storage

Hydrogen can be stored in different kinds of materials, in gaseous, liquid or more recently in solid form. Gaseous hydrogen can either be transported through natural gas pipelines, mixed into the natural gas, or stored in gas tanks. Liquid hydrogen is stored in metal vessels at high pressures. In solid form, hydrogen is stored in metal hydrides. August 2001, a new developer of metal hydride Hydrogen storage systems, Hera spun off from Shell Hydrogen, Hydrogen Quebec and GFE in Germany. Headquarters and R&D are in Montreal, and a subsidiary in Nuremberg, Germany. Hera can provide Hydrogen storage materials, tanks and tank systems based on metal hydrides. Robert Schulz, Chief scientist and director of R&D of Hera gave a historic overview of the developments of solid hydrogen storage technologies, in July 2002. In the 1960s and 70s the leading technology was conventional hydride materials. In the 1980s, the focus shifted to amorphous hydrides such as NiZr, and from 1990 the focus is on nanostructured hydrides including carbon nanotubes, nano-magnesium based hydrides, Metal hydride-carbon nanocomposites, nanochemical hydrides and alanates. Hera can offer Magnesium Hydride and Sodium Aluminium Hydride.

At the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy in Freiburg, Germany, researchers developed a hydrogen storage device and fuel cell system which is small enough to integrate in a portable digital camcorder - see Miniature Fuel Cells

More experimental alternatives include carbon nanotubes, DIMES TUDelft, SiC, LiC6, nanostructured TiO2 and carbon-metal oxide composites. (DISE, TUDelft.)

Hydrogen distribution and use

The coming years, Europe will stimulate the real uptake of hydrogen in transport systems along several lines, including the CUTE project where prototype hydrogen powered buses will run in nine European cities. The coming years will also feature experiments in Iceland aiming to create a Hydrogen society on the island, including hydrogen powered buses from mid 2003, a network of hydrogen fuel stations for private cars, and development of plans for hydrogen boats. (Source Cordis news service, EC, 15 october 2002.)

Cleaner conventional energy

Nanotechnology can also contribute to the improvement of conventional energy sources including coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy and electricity. The report covers both nanotechnology contributions to electricity production and to primary energy production. To start with electricity, the production from coal or natural gas can be made more efficient by using nanotechnology in turbine plants. In nuclear energy, nanotechnology can help improve the radiation resistance of the materials.


Batteries are needed to supply electrical energy when you can’t get it from the electricity grid. This includes mobile applications such as mobile phones, walkmans, but also home or even village power supply in remote areas and in back up systems in case the grid goes down. In the future, rechargeable batteries will be even more needed in combination with renewable electricity production such as by solar photovoltaics. The sun does not shine when you need the light the most: at night. Even though at the moment both rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries are available on the market, the trend is towards rechargeables.

There are basically two types of rechargeable batteries where nanostructured materials are applied and the focus of research. The first and most advanced is Lithium based, for example Li-ion batteries. These are dry batteries. The other type, wet batteries, uses basically the same materials as for hydrogen storage, and are based on metal hydrides, where hydrogen is the chemical energy carrier, or carbon nanotubes. (Source Martin Ouwerkerk, Philips, Netherlands in Chemisch 2 Weekblad, pending publication.) The above mentioned Millenium cell system is also applied in batteries.


There are many forms of primary energy, including fossil fuels such as oil and gas; biomass, nuclear energy, and renewables such as wind, sun, and hydroenergy. These primary energy sources must be transformed into heat, electricity or mechanical power (movement, pressure etc.). For some of these energy transformations, there is no efficient or cost effective solution. And for some of these needs for new energy transformation technologies, researchers are developing new nanostructured materials or nanocomponents. Fuel cells for transforming hydrogen or other gasses (natural gas, methanol) into electricity is a well known example. But researchers are also working on less visible nanotechnologies such as catalysts and membranes for separating different types of gases. These can be used in fuel cells or other energy transforming technologies.

Greening industrial production

A lot of energy is applied in industrial production. This energy can be produced on site for instance by combined heat and power installations, or using the industrial waste as fuel. Industrial production can also contribute to energy saving by using less energy or materials for the same number of products. Or by making the products such as cars lighter, hence more energy efficient in their use. The report covers the general aspects and looks at specific sectors such as the automotive and oil industry, and Combined Heat and Power installations.

Energy saving

The most sustainable energy use is no energy use. Governments therefore also stimulate energy saving by consumers as well as industry. Some of these measures imply the use of new technologies, such as improved isolation materials. Nanostructured materials such as nanofoams may play a role here. The report gives a general overview.


Nanotechnology research in Europe can contribute to solving future needs for energy technologies, especially in new generations of solar photovoltaics, the hydrogen economy, more efficient conventional energy production and energy saving for industry as well as consumers. Considering the substantial budgets for research dedicated to nanoresearch including for energy applications, much of this potential is likely to be realised in the coming decades.



The research which is the basis for this paper has been funded by the European Commission, Growth programme. The contents of this presentation is solely the responsibility of the author.

Biography of Ineke Malsch

I am the owner-director of Malsch TechnoValuation, a consultant/science journalism bureau specialising in (nano)technology in its societal context since 1999. I have studied what researchers, industrialists, governments and civil society do with or expect from nanotechnology in Europe since 1995. I have looked at nanotechnology RTD and start up companies in EU member states; biomedical, biodefence, space and environmental applications of nanotechnology, nanoelectronics and public awareness of nanotechnology.

Among other activities, Malsch TechnoValuation participates in the EU project Nanoforum as a subcontractor. It is also the Dutch contact of the Institute of Nanotechnology and I am editor of a book on Biomedical Nanotechnology for Marcel Dekker, Inc, .

Before starting my company, I had been involved in studies about nanotechnology in Europe since 1995, as a scholar at the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment Unit of the European Parliament, Luxembourg (1995-1996) and as a research fellow at the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies of the EC Joint Research Centre in Seville, Spain (1996-1998). I have graduated in Physics at the university of Utrecht in 1991 (comparable to MSc), and have followed post-graduate training in Environmental Impact Assessment (University College of Wales, UK and University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1990-1991) and Science and Technology Studies (University of Twente, Netherlands 1992-1994).

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