March 05, 2013

Nanotechnology: Expanding Clean Energy and Easing Fuel Shortages

By: Ken Silverstein

Source: Forbes

Science and technology are at the heart of expanding the universe of clean energy options and increasing the efficiency of transmission and generation. One word says it all: Nanotechnology, which is a fancy process that could positively affect both industry and the environment.

The science is already being commercialized and most notably in the area of green energy technologies. Its most far-reaching implications are still unknown but the tools have the potential to ease fuel shortages and ecological threats that are now in such sharp focus. While some promises have fallen flat, the push to advance nanotechnology remains strong.

Nanotechnology is an evolutionary science — not something that has just magically appeared in recent years. About 50 to 100 years ago, devices were assembled at the macro level but through advancements in technology, they have been substantially reduced in size to the “nano-level” where components can be more effectively manipulated. Scientists can thus create new building blocks that produce materials with the exact properties they desire, which are smaller, stronger and lighter than the current technologies.

According to Pradeep Haldar, vice president of clean energy programs at the College of Nanoscale Science at the University of Albany in New York State, nanotechnology can be viewed along two lines: evolutionary science and revolutionary science.

The former already exists but scientists are trying to understand it better and to enhance performance. The latter is at least a decade away. The field of nanotechnology is about building devices from the ground up and one atom at a time — something that could create a monumental impact on mankind and on the energy world in particular.

“At some point, both of these arrows will converge,” says Haldar, who spoke earlier with this reporter. “I would not say this is a lot of hype. I would say there are a lot of ifs and buts.”

Carbon nanotubes, for example, are the most conductive materials known and could be used to modernize the transmission system to save a lot of power. However, mass-producing those nanotubes for such purposes is still problematic. Improvements, though, are forthcoming.

Measuring electricity flow, for example, would allow utilities to avoid outages and to make room for alternative electrons. Nanotech “sensors” that are part of this solution will be available in 5-10 years, he told Energy Central’s Intelligent Utility.

Wind power, meantime, could be transformed. The wing span of turbines is much bigger and is now 120-150 feet. The kind of forces and mechanical stresses put on those turbines is incredible. By putting nano-composites into the design, such wind mills can get higher performance. And, solar cells that turn sunlight into electric currents could become more efficient and diminish the global need for carbon-based fuels.

Who’s doing what? Altair Nanotechnologies is working with the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and the University of Hawaii to supply a 2 megawatt energy storage system to maintain grid stability, all using its nano-scale processing technology that it says provides rapid charging.

Nanosolar, furthermore, a maker of thin-film solar cells, has a project in Spain that applies nano-science that will provide 16,500 megawatt hours of electricity each year. And GE and IBM are also getting involved by improving the efficiency of gas turbines and by bettering circuits and data storage.

“The level of interest has grown enormously worldwide over the last few years in the scientific community,” says Ryne Raffaelle, director of the Nano Powered Research Lab at Rochester Institute of Technology, in an earlier talk with this writer. “With that much effort being put into it, you will start to see advancement in the near term.” The lab is working with numerous corporations as well as NASA on fuel cell and solar cell research.

The science’s momentum is contingent on the amount of money coming in the door. Both public and private funds are now tight, which is delaying nanotechnology’s full promise. Companies are, nevertheless, getting established in fields that will touch almost every human endeavor.