March 05, 2013
Nanotechnology: Expanding Clean Energy and Easing Fuel Shortages
By: Ken Silverstein
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.