There are two ways to address a gap between energy supply and demand: the development of inexpensive and earth-friendly alternative fuel sources and using existing fuels more efficiently. Nanotechnology has a fundamental role to play in both.
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.
At the nanoscale, 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 manage energy supplies.
For instance, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in the
In its gaseous state hydrogen’s energy content is low. The challenge is finding a way to store it which maximises the energy available while ensuring it can be processed to generate power. By manipulating solid hydrogen atom by atom, it 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 be broken down, releasing the hydrogen for processing.
Target for wind power
Nanotech can also support wind power. There are 1,672 operational turbines in the
Reliability is a major problem. Wind turbines are huge, rotating objects often operating in wet conditions. They can accumulate rain and sea water that freezes into ice, increasing weight, drag and the force required to move glass fibre blades. Turbine efficiency can drop by up to 10 per cent under these conditions. But new coatings, built atom by atom, can help blades repel water.
The Degussa Corporation in
Another example is the development of cheaper solar panels to encourage more people to invest in solar power. Nanotech 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 one nanometre thick can generate as much electricity as a 200-300nm thick silicon wafer for a lower cost. One company, Nanosolar, is planning to build a new production plant in
Elsewhere, the materials science department at
About 95 per cent of the energy used in traditional lighting is wasted in the form of heat, but LEDs are up to 10 times more efficient because they do not require heat. LEDs used in torches, however, produce a light too harsh for our eyes.
Elsewhere, travel company Stagecoach is using nanotech to increase the fuel efficiency of its coaches and buses. Oxonica, a small company based in
Future electricity grids could be built on nanoscale science. Carbon nanotubes are better conductors of electricity than traditional copper wires. They can carry more than one billion amps/sq cm, losing little energy as heat, and in theory could carry electricity thousands of miles. With the ability to conduct electricity over these distances, cities could draw power from giant desert solar farms or off-coast wind farms rather than rely on local coal, gas or nuclear plants.
There are a finite number of energy sources on the planet but measurable ways to 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 can develop energy-efficient materials and products. If we continue to label nanoscience and the new technologies it can yield as developments for the next century we are likely to overlook its immediate advantages. Nanotechnology is not a discipline for future generations. It can help us now.
Dr Rob Fastenau is senior vice-president, Europe, FEI Company