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Clean Energy Could Power Nascent Nanotech Industry

By Ron Pernick, Clean Edge, Inc. (www.cleanedge.com)

It doesn’t take a rocket, or nanotech, scientist to understand that the world currently faces a host of serious energy challenges. Nearly 2 billion people live without access to electricity. Natural gas and oil prices have more than doubled over the last year and are unlikely to subside any time soon. And China, with its burgeoning middle class, is on target to be the largest consumer of energy goods and services the globe has ever seen.

If we don’t widely embrace more stable clean-energy supplies soon we will continue to see brutal wars fought, air and water polluted, and economies disrupted for decades to come. If we are not smarter planners and more conscientious stewards we will likely deplete our remaining natural resources and see increasingly significant disruptions in global climate in our quest to keep modern industrial society running.

But not all is doom and gloom. There are bright spots.

In boardrooms, in the lab, and in governmental circles -- people and organization are addressing pressing energy and environmental needs by deploying renewable energy sources.

We are seeing the advent of creative political solutions such as renewable portfolio standards (RPS) as well as other mandates, subsidies, and standards. RPS, which require that a percentage of a region’s electricity comes from clean sources such as solar, wind, and wave power, are being implemented in an increasing number of states and countries. California, for example, is targeting twenty percent clean-energy sources by 2017. China recently passed a law that will result in between 60 and 120 GW of clean energy development by 2020.

Technologies and markets are starting to scale up dramatically. Wind power is now cost competitive with many forms of conventional energy; the solar PV industry has nearly tripled in size over the last five years, and industrial giants such as GE and Sharp now have clean-energy divisions that generate more than $1 billion annually in revenue.

Clean energy is becoming mainstream business.

And quite a few emerging renewable energy developments are coming out of the intersection of energy and nanotech. From solar cell and fuel cell fabrication to energy management, nanotechnology offers a range of opportunities.

Below are examples of some of the more notable developments:

Driving Down Solar PV Costs

Many clean-energy technologies have remained out of reach of most consumers for a simple reason: cost. But in the two last three decades we’ve seen the price for solar power drop by more than an order of magnitude from $80 per peak watt to around $6.00 per peak watt. This translates into solar electricity rates of around 30 cents per kilowatt hour. Today, some solar PV systems are being installed for as low 20 cents per kilowatt hour for retail electricity (produced and delivered to the consumer). Not bad for high-cost electricity markets like Japan and Southern California and for peak-generation needs (when conventional grid electricity costs the most).

Industry is within striking distance of truly low-cost solar power — making it competitive for most applications. Nanotechnology-driven companies such as Konarka, Nanosolar, and Nanosys are all developing new nano-materials that could dramatically reduce costs and enable solar to be flexible like plastic. A whole new range of powered devices and applications could be born out of these developments.

Investors are interested. Konarka raised more than $18 million in 2004 from venture capitalists and Nanosolar received grants totaling more than $10 million last year from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

Efficiently Managing Electrons

Another area of opportunity includes energy efficiency and the development of smart devices. Nano engineering could lead to smart windows, energy efficient LEDs and wireless controls. It also could enable highly efficient conductors and superconductors that could eventually replace current transmission facilities.

According to a new report by Research and Markets, nano-enabled solutions, such as supercapacitors, will create entirely new opportunities for local electricity storage and may gradually lead to new distributed architectures for electricity grids. These new networks could lead to much lower rates of energy wastage and improved performance.

Materials for a Hydrogen Future

Nanoscale fabrication, for hydrogen production, storage, and fuel cells, could make the dream of a hydrogen future a reality. A number of companies are investing heavily in applying nanotechnology to this burgeoning area. Nanotech research firm Cientifica, for example, reports that carbon nanotubes could enable a tenfold improvement in the performance of fuel cells, together with a 50% reduction of the cost of catalyst material. As prices drop over the next five years, the research firm estimates they will be used in 70% of all fuel cells.

And Rutgers scientists are using nanotechnology in chemical reactions that could provide hydrogen for tomorrow's fuel-cell powered vehicles. In a paper recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers at Rutgers describe how they make a finely textured surface of the metal iridium that can be used to extract hydrogen from ammonia, then captured and fed to a fuel cell.

Another company, Hydrogen Solar, is using nanotechnology to enable the production of hydrogen from the sun. The company’s Tandem Cell converts the energy of sunlight directly into hydrogen gas by splitting water into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The cell has nano-crystalline coatings of metal oxides, which have vast surface areas and enable the cell to capture the full spectrum of ultraviolet light.

A PR mastermind that I know recently said that: "nanotech makes clean-tech sexy, and clean-tech makes nanotech nice." In many ways I couldn’t agree more. As outlined above, some of the hottest and most exciting developments in the clean-energy space revolve around breakthroughs in nanotechnology. And clean energy provides a motivational pull for nanotech companies and pioneers that want to solve some of the most pressing issues of our time.

If a confluence of forces continues to line up, and real technologies and business models can be developed, nanotech may just end up being powered by a new wave of clean-energy development.

Let the clean-energy nanotech race begin!

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