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Mini-tutorial on nanotech for energy

“How can nanotechnology help the development of fuel cell technology?” If you should know this — but don’t — check out VC Norm Wu’s column on the ExtremeNano site by Ziff Davis. Also covered: nano and solar cells, nanocatalysts, and hydrogen.

The nano & energy story isn’t just about production: “Perhaps the broadest way in which nanotechnology will impact energy is on the consumption side. Lighting accounts for about 20 percent of all electricity consumption in the US. Researchers at Sandia believe that a new white LED technology, based on nanoscale manufacturing to create flawless devices, can cut that energy usage by half.”

This may not sound as sexy as nano-based energy production, but it would be a huge advance — great for both the environment and the pocketbook. –CP

5 Responses to “Mini-tutorial on nanotech for energy”

  1. Phillip Huggan Says:

    Nanocomposite materials for wind turbines blades and flywheels. Nano/bio methods of containing oil spills.

  2. Richard C.Poore Says:

    I am glad some people are taking the energy crises seriously. We are hung up on oil at the present time with an administration without a real lenergy policy. This conservation approach is needed today. SUVs and gas guzzlers kill mmore people eavch year than 9/1

    Finding a way to create Hydrogen inexspensively would be an answer to the worlds energy problkem into eternity, How close are we on that score?

  3. sudhakara A M Says:

    I am very happy to see interest shown in research in nanotechnology. It really saves our planet earth from catastophe. with burning of oil and woods we are reaching nowhere and our children will be left with mud. Hence it is this nanotechnology will do wonders in generating required energy needed to dwell in this planet earth.

    Sudhakara A M
    Systems Engineer,
    University of Mysore, Mysore,India

  4. Novak Says:

    I have a hard time imagining any governmental policy– with the exception of eliminating fuel taxes, which simply shifts the burden elsewhere– that would result in any markedly different price at the pumps in less than a year. I have a hard time imagining any governmental policy at all that would make a serious dent in oil consumption in less than three to five years.

    Totally off the top of my head, and in no particular order, here are the options and their relation to nanotechnology as I see them:

    1) Nuclear fission. This is a finance and regulatory issue more than anything else. I do not see a direct relationship to nanotechnology. There are no doubt indirect relationships– better building materials, better storage matrix materials, etc, but the regulatory aspects will prevent swift adoption even if the indirect methods were ready to go right now. Fission plant build up will take on the order of half a decade, if it gets past the NIMBY hurdle.

    2) Nuclear fusion. Currently 35 to 45 years away with no direct nanotech tie-in that I know of, although I am not an expert.

    3) Solar. Here there is a direct tie-in to nanotechnology, as better technology yields increasing conversion efficiencies. However, a little math will show that this will never be practical as an alternative to other energy sources because even at perfect efficiencies it is too area-intensive.

    4) Wind and Ocean power. See solar, except without the nano tie-in.

    5) Hydroelectric dams. Very productive, significant environmental impact, no nanotech tie-in.

    6) Coal. Very productive, tons of it lying around, hard on the environment. Nanotech tie-ins mostly related to keeping the pollution under control, which is not trivial.

    7) Petroleum. The main nanotech tie-ins here are better extraction techniques (but take them with a grain of salt– we’ve been promised practical shale extraction for years through nanotech and we don’t have it… even with ising oil prices it is still not economical) and pollution controls. Building more refineries would help, too, but again this is more regulatory and financial; the only nanotech tie-in is to make the refineries more efficient and environmentally friendly.

    8) Methane and other hydrocarbons. Potentially practical, but on a large scae it would require a massive parallel infrastructure similar to and comparable to the oil infrastructure. Everything from extraction to transport to conversion. Developing, but very expensive.

    9) Hydrogen. Similar to 8 above. Your question in particular was about hydrogren production, and the answer is that it might be practical in five years to use nanobio techniques (although you might get more search hits off “systems biology” or “synthetic biology”) to get hydrogen production. I haven’t a clue what the efficiencies will be. Moreover, there is still the problem of how to carry the stuff around and use it. No one is thrilled about the prospects of driving around with a tank full of gaseous hydrogen molecules. And however you carry it, it needs to be in a form that car engines can use, like hydrogen cells, and a format that can make it to your gas stations… and again we’re talking about a parallel distribution network. Nanotech can help with the fuel cells, but not so much with the distribution.
    Just creating hydrogen is not enough. It is the first step. It is not by any means the last step.

    And a theme running through all these examples is that while we’re very good at generating electricity through various means, we are not so good at transporting energy in units that are physically small, high in energy density, and ready to consume by middle sized devices. Right now, the only thing that fits that bill is hydrocarbon fuels. Unless and until that changes, there will be no significant reduction in oil consumption.

    Now, overall energy consumption is a different matter, at least by sector. As the base article pointed out, lighting is expensive, and it is somethign that nanotechnology is in a position to help with over the course of five to ten years. I refuse to trivialize the difficulties involved, but there seem to be only a few (ha!) basic breakthroughs required before these devices are ready for the home market. But even here, economically what will happen is not a drop in energy consumption, per se, but an increase in the efficiency of energy consumption and an attendant rise in wealth. The resources consumed will still be consumed, they will simply be consumed by someone else for some other purpose.

    This applies to more than just lighting. There are other examples across the industrial and home markets. The impact could potentially be very significant.

    Another way in which nanotechnology can help is in the lifting of nations from the “undeveloped” or “developing” status into “developed” status without causing as much environmental damage along the way, and without consuming quite so many resources… because they have less of an installed base problem. They can build the alternate infrastructures without throwing away as much as we would be. Solar power, for instance, might make a much bigger impact in Africa and rural India and China becuase it can potentially be used to power their telecommunications and local computational infrastructure, which can help them bootstrap the res of their economies quickly.

    But there is no magic bullet, here. Just saying “Hydrogren production,” is not enough.

  5. gautam nagesh shirali Says:

    ooooops!!! that sounds great.if nanotechnology takes off it would be a great savings to the i am a student of technology things of this kind would be of great interest to me.if nanotechnology works then it would benefit millions and zillions of people and ofcourse the whole world and eradicate poverty.

    gautam nagesh shirali
    1semester master of business and technology (mbitech)
    department of commerce
    university of mysore

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