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November 8th, 2006
Nanotech and Energy - A Partnership with Promise
As energy demands increase and our ability to supply using traditional methods declines, we must not underestimate nanotechnology's role in the production, storage, conservation and delivery of energy. Countries such as the US, the UL and others have traditionally relied on their own fossil fuel resources but will soon have to increasingly depend on imports.
There are two courses to pursue when addressing a gap between energy supply and demand.
•The development of inexpensive and earth-friendly alternative fuel sources
•Using existing fuels more efficiently
Nanotechnology research and resulting nanotechnologies has a fundamental role to play in both.
Why is nanotechnology important?
Nanotechnology is science and technology where characterising and analysing materials and structures below 100 nanometres (nm) plays a critical role. At this scale, familiar materials begin to develop unusual properties because this is the level where essential properties of matter are determined. Applying these properties can help find new ways to generate, store and conserve energy. Nanoscience - the discipline which aims to explore and discover the basic blocks of our universe - has been a research discipline for decades, but the first wave of real nanotechnologies is just beginning to break and it looks impressive.
Developing alternative fuel sources
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in the US is already using nanotechnology to develop materials which can store solid hydrogen - a way to reduce our reliance on carbon-based fuels. It is abundant in our atmosphere and has more energy per unit of mass than any known substance. Although the concept of a hydrogen economy has been around for many years, there are technical barriers to the wide-scale adoption of hydrogen energy - the greatest being storage. In its gaseous state the energy content of hydrogen is low. The challenge is finding a way to store hydrogen which maximises the energy available whilst ensuring the hydrogen can easily be processed to generate power. By manipulating it atom by atom, solid hydrogen can be stored in nanoscale pores built-into PNNL's new material. At this scale, the hydrogen retains its solid state and can easily be transported. The material can then be broken down, releasing the hydrogen for processing.
Nanotechnology is also helping wind power gain ground. There are 1672 operational wind turbines in the UK developing 1833 megawatts (MW) of power every year. That number must rise to 40,000MW before 2010 to meet the EU's directive on renewable energy. But a major problem is reliability, which has raised concerns with the investment and insurance communities. Wind turbines are huge, rotating objects operating in wet conditions. They often accumulate rain and sea water which freezes into ice, increasing weight, drag and the force required to move fibreglass blades. Turbine efficiency can drop by as much as 10% under these conditions. But new coatings, built atom by atom, can help blades repel water. The Degussa Corporation in Germany has used electron microscopes to replicate the water repellent surfaces of plant leaves. Degussa can manufacture these as a thin film covered with nanoscale wax crystals which quickly beads water. This can be used on turbine blades to make water run off before it can freeze.
Another example is the development of cheaper solar panels to encourage more people to invest in solar power. Solar became popular in the 1970s but fell out of favour following fluctuations in savings over fossil fuels. Nanotechnology is helping reduce the cost of producing solar panels by removing the need to build them from silicon. Thin films of new photovoltaic substances just 1nm thick can generate as much electricity as a 200-300nm thick silicon wafer. These thin-film cells offer similar conversion efficiencies to those based on silicon but can be manufactured at a lower cost. One company, Nanosolar, is planning to build a new production plant in Germany, producing 200 million nanotechnology solar cells per year - enough to power 400,000 homes. It claims a silicon-based factory of the same capacity would cost an additional $900 million to build.
Using existing fuels more efficiently
Nanotechnology is also helping us understand how fuels work. With a better comprehension of the properties of different fuels we can manipulate them to deliver energy with greater efficiency.
The materials science department at Cambridge University is developing nanotechnology that could reduce the UK's electricity consumption by 16% by bringing white LEDs (light emitting diodes) into our homes and offices. 95% of the energy used in traditional lighting is wasted in the form of heat but LEDs are up to ten times more efficient because they do not require heat to produce light. But white LEDs, widely used in torches and on bike lights, produce a light too harsh for our eyes. Cambridge is using electron microscopes to cover LEDs with nanoparticles of phosphors - substances which emit different colours when subjected to white light. When different phosphors are used in a particular combination on a white LED they produce natural white light suitable for homes and offices.
Stagecoach Group plc is already using nanotechnology to increase the fuel efficiency of its coaches and buses. Oxonica, a small company based in Oxford, has developed a fuel additive built using nanoscale particles called Envirox. Made for diesel fuel, the particles coat the inner workings of the engine and remove all carbon deposits during the combustion process. Envirox has already demonstrated fuel efficiency gains of up to 12% and significant reductions in particulate emissions.
Future electricity grids could be built on nanoscale science. Carbon nanotubes - tiny tubes of carbon grown for their strength and lightweight properties - are better conductors of electricity than traditional copper wires. They can carry over a billion amps of current per cm sq and lose very little energy as heat. In theory, they could carry electricity thousands of miles. With the ability to conduct electricity efficiently over such long distances, cities could use energy generated by giant solar farms in deserts or by wind farms off coastal shores rather than relying on local coal, gas or nuclear power plants.
We have looked at just some of the ways in which viewing and manipulating material at the nanoscale can influence how we manage energy supply and demand. There are a finite number of energy sources on the planet but measurable ways we can improve our use of them. By viewing substances atom by atom we will understand how best to exploit their traits. By manipulating them at this scale, we will also be able to develop new materials and products which can support our drive for a cleaner, more energy-efficient world.
This is not a discipline for future generations to exploit. We can not label nanotechnology as a science for the next century and overlook its immediate advantages for the energy challenges we face today. It can help us now.