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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > UAlbany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering > Shift Work

John Elter
Executive Director of the Center for Sustainable Ecosystem Nanotechnologies;Empire Innovation Professor of Nanoengineering
UAlbany- College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering

Abstract:
Shift work is an employment practice that makes use of each hour of the clock. Every minute of every day. Therefore it is an appropriate term to encapsulate our immediate need to redefine, to shift, the way we think about our planet and the way we use our resources. This thought shift is a cognitive and behavioral revolution that we need to wage every minute of every day until we collectively stop making unsustainable choices.

March 20th, 2009

Shift Work

Shift work is an employment practice that makes use of each hour of the clock. Every minute of every day. Therefore it is an appropriate term to encapsulate our immediate need to redefine, to shift, the way we think about our planet and the way we use our resources. This thought shift is a cognitive and behavioral revolution that we need to wage every minute of every day until we collectively stop making unsustainable choices.

As a human race, we have a proud and long history as innovators. We have a legacy of guts and drive and determination. When truly tested, there is no problem we cannot solve. But to get started we must fully embrace the problem set.

The loss of biological diversity through pollution and unbridled change in land use; the lack of clean water for over one third of the world's population; lack of energy sources in developing nations to enable economic development, and the wasteful and harmful burning of fossil fuels to the point of changing the earth's climate are all examples of unsustainable human activities that require a fundamental change in what we do and how we do it. How we accomplish tasks in pursuit of meeting human needs and demands is only part of the question. The more important question is how do we do so sustainably?

There are two words that are at the essence of our current environmental call to action and the scientific revolution necessary to answer the call; they are "sustainable" and "nanotechnology". The field of nanotechnology is embracing both the challenge and the opportunity to demonstrate how nanotechnology can be brought to bear on the most important issues facing the human race in our lifetime. It is doing this by applying the scientific revolution of nanotechnology to the emerging paradigm shift toward sustainable development.

We are all aware of the current fossil fuel model and the severe impact it has on our changing climate. We are bombarded each day with the data on negative aspects of this model and its impact on our planet. We know we need to change our energy demands and habits. An elegant alternative energy solution, which can be called "water-to-water", would use renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Both could then be stored and used to for electricity and water during periods when solar power and wind power cannot. The nanoscale structures required for the electrochemical water splitting and water forming could incorporate novel low cost and stable nano-size catalysts, making the technology good for the environment and easier on the wallet, i.e. truly sustainable. Activities involving the bottom up design of model electrode and catalyst structures are underway.

Another example is the application of nanoscale science and technology to advanced batteries and supercapacitors for use in hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles. Here the design of nanoscale structured electrodes and advanced electrolytes offer the possibility of increased performance of both devices. The lithium-ion battery currently has the highest performance with respect to energy and power density but it suffers from limited charge and discharge rates, a short cycle life and narrow operating temperature latitudes. These issues must be resolved to enable batteries to become a viable alternative means of powering vehicle drive trains. Nanotechnology is playing a key role in addressing all of these issues. What is also needed, however, is a careful consideration of the choice of materials and manufacturing process in order to ensure recyclability and perhaps even remanufacturabilty and reuse of the batteries, to ensure the battery powered vehicle is a sustainable alternative.

Of course other examples can be given in the areas of water and air quality and habitat health monitoring, for example. Clearly, the problem sets exists, the solutions are ready to be discovered, but ultimately the conversion of the two requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about ourselves, our planet, our needs and our wants. There is much riding on this shift work, and nanotechnology can be the means to sustainable ecosystems, whether natural or man-made.

#####

John F. Elter is Empire Innovation Professor of Nanoengineering and Executive Director of the Center for Sustainable Ecosystem Nanotechnologies at the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering. John has four decades of industry leadership, research, and development and commercialization experience including 30+ years at Xerox where he led the first documented Zero to Landfill project called LAKES. He was CTO of Plug Power and is Co-chair of the upcoming Gordon Conference on Fuel Cells.

The Center for Sustainable EcoSystem Nanotechnologies (CSEN), headquartered at the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, focuses on the role that nanotechnology will play in sustaining the world's critical ecosystems. CSEN addresses critical ecosystem issues facing both the developed and developing world by providing comprehensive, market driven systems analysis and basic science and research of electrochemical and electromechancial systems at the nanoscale.


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